Friday, December 11, 2009

Time for social networks

A new book Connected: The Surprising Poer of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives (2009, Little, Brown, and Co) has some important ideas for social change organizations. Create networks! If you really want to bring about change, don't just send out information in the form of newsletters, web sites, or magazines, create networks! You've probably heard something about the ideas of Christakis and Fowler — the news stories announce the fact that if your friend loses weight, you are more likely to lose weight. If your friend's friend is happy, you are more likely to be happy. In other words, emotions and actions spread. As I've said for many years (I heard it from someone and I like it) we become like the people we hang around. When I was a community college administrator I was a much stuffier person than when I was hanging around with faculty. I always used this as cautionary advice to people, telling them to be careful who they hung around with.

But it's just as important for social groups to understand. If you want people to behave differently, form groups and work with the leaders of the groups. If you want people to be more altruistic, select an altristic person as leader and give him or her information about the importance of altruism. If you want people to act more sustainably and reduce their carbon footprint, form a group and encourage the members to bring about changes. They are more likely to do this when they talk about the changes in their group than if you just give them their information on an individual basis.

What this says to me is that simplicity circles are very important! People are much more likely to live simply if they are in a simplicity group. Further, the effect will be even wider because each of these people is a member of other groups and they will affect their members.

We've always known that there are certain things that happen more efficiently if people act together. The authors use the example of putting out a fire. If you have people running to a river and carrying back buckets of water to a burning house, they are not as effective as the group that forms a line and passes the water along.

Further, it's clear that cooeration is part of our nature and has resulted at least in part, from evolution. There are just certain things done better if done with others — like fighting wild animals or predatory groups.

But we have forgotten all of this in the US. Our ultra individualistic tendencies have made us ignore the importance of groups. Now happiness research is showing that people who have strong social ties are both happier and healthier. Again, it seems like common sense, but we don't seem to pay attention to things in this culture until the academic researchers pronounce that something is so. The true test is that we must begin to act on this knowldege by not only helping to form social networks but by creating a culture that brings people together. We need more public spaces and festivals as well as shorter working hours and less commuting in private cars. We need to quit encouraging competition and making rich people into celebrities. The best thing we can do is create wealth equality, because inequality encourages people to be out for themselves and to put greed ahead of caring.

Ultimately, we need to create a culture with more time for social ties.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Social support helps you live longer

What would Reagan say? When Russia switched from a communist economy to a capitalist free market economy, life expectancy for men dropped from 67 to 60. A similar drop occurred in most of the former Soviet countries, a new study says.
There were a few exceptions where this didn't happen Poland and the Czech Republic. What was the difference? Social support.

"The authors suggest that the existence of trade unions, churches, sports, political organizations and other social organizations played a significant role in cushioning adults’ stress during the transitions.

“In countries in which more than 45 percent of the population was a member of a social organization, mass privatization had no significant adverse association with mortality rates,” the report said."

As we face the traumas of our economy, we need to make sure there is this kind of support. We need to create community to help people weather the storm.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Anxiety and How to Combat It — Slowly

These days I seem to feel anxious a good deal of the time. I wake up and read the The New York Times and end the day watching Jon Stewart.

Just those two things can make you feel anxious because you're reminded just how bad things really are.

And of course in between I feel anxious because my world is in a constant state of rush and distraction. Little time to sit and do nothing.

I realized the other day, though, that there is a time when this anxiety recedes. When I'm hanging out in congenial company, just passing the time of day, talking about nothing important, just laughing and enjoying ourselves.

It works so much better than pills. But don't expect the health care industry to tell you that. There's not much money in encouraging people to hang out with their friends.

I think a lot of people feel anxious, and this just might be what we need to do: to realize that we need each other a lot more than we need drugs, consumer goods, possessions, money and status.

Vacationing Can Really Mean Something!

As summer passes, we're reminded how important vacations are. In part, it's about happiness. There are certain abilities we need to be happy: and they're falling into disuse. You can relearn them on vacation.

For instance, the ability to sit and do nothing! Watch the waves, the sun go down. This experience of deep absorbtion is what allows us to feel deeply.

Another neglected ability is the ability to be leisurely: to take your time, to notice, to appreciate. In particular, this is important for relationships, and good relationships are at the heart of happiness. You can't have good relationships if you're harried and distracted.

And finally, the ability to reflect: to take stock of your life and ask if you're living the way you want. This is something we usually do on vacations, and may neglect if we never escape.

So you can revive these basic abilities when you go on vacation.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Latest tech breakthrough: Replacing phone bot with human!

Technology continues to make it difficult to live a slower, richer life.

For instance, I recently tried to solve a problem with a magazine I had ordered and never received. First, there are a long list of options on the web site. I chose to make the phone call, but that shoved me into the "automatic" subscription representative.

In other words, I was talking to a computer, one that couldn't understand me no matter how clearly I spoke! After repeating myself numerous times, I pressed the bottom for getting a new subscription. I figured there would be a real person for that! I was right, and it was taken care of immediately.

This was wasted time! A real person worked better! We must question just how much technology can do!

Equal wages for equal-ity

Equality works best.

As our wealth gap grows, our longevity shrinks. (The biggest predictor for the health of a nation is the wealth gap. A large gap destroys social cohesion creating a ruthless and highly stressful society. Even rich people don't live as long!)

One way to create a stronger and larger middle class is to start doing something about corporate salaries. They're doing this in Europe, particularly in Holland. As the report says: "Europeans have become too accustomed to living in relatively equal societies to tolerate American-style executive pay."

You not only need a minimum wage, but a maximum wage as well.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Lakoff, Democracy Conversations and Dave Winer Podcast

Our March series on "Democracy Conversations" here in Seattle is focusing on George Lakoff's new book Thinking Points. Each week we get together to discuss two chapters -- we call it a "slow reading" group! Last night we also listened to a riveting podcast, an interview between blogging legend Dave Winer and Lakoff. For anyone seeking to understand exactly how Lakoff's philosophy of framing applies to real-life scenarios, the podcast, put together the day after the Texas-Ohio primaries, really nails it. It's one of the few podcasts I can think of where listening two or three times is worth it. Lakoff's concepts make so much sense that at first you think, "Oh yeah, I get that." But then, as you mull over his words, you find yourself understanding his subtlety and depth in new and exciting ways. Dave is a skillful interviewer, having a sixth sense about prompting Lakoff to explain more, or introduce a related topic that will give meaning to Lakoff's theories. (Dave has posted a full rundown on the podcast and response.)

Here's an example: It was interesting, reading Hillary-lover Paul Krugman's analysis this morning, where Krugman said Dems should focus on the economy instead of the war. Lakoff brilliantly notes in the podcast that Dems should be using the term "the Iraq recession." Two birds, one stone, and a memorable "sound bite" as well.

In his book, Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision, Lakoff says that we need to articulate our progressive vision in "grassroots groups all over America. Not just for the next election but indefinitely-- election or no election."

And that's what we're doing in our Democracy Conversations group here in Seattle. As part of our effort to build community and civic engagement in our neighborhood Phinney Ecovillage, we're coming together each Thursday night in the local library trying to learn from Lakoff how we can talk about the issues confronting us. Progressives need to take back the discussion about security, the economy, and patriotism and link these to a vision of America that says "we're all in this together" that the "important American values are empathy and responsibility," as Lakoff says.

Saint-Exupery, the author of Little Prince, said that "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."

We have to inspire in people a vision of a country committed to the common good.
And we need to learn to do it in our face to face conversations as we go through our day. Our assignment in our group: Talk to at least two people a day about these issues! As John Dewey said, "Democracy is born in conversation."

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Kids Need Play, Not Commercialization

We're beginning to realize that playing is important for kids. It develops their imagination, their creativity, and now, something they call "self-regulation." A story on NPR's Morning Edition reports that something momentous happened in 1955 that no one really noticed: Companies started massive advertising for kids' toys. Since then, kids' play has become more and more involved with "things" instead of imagination.

Further, because of parents concern about safety, kids have less chance to roam freely. And finally, with our concern about achievement, both parents and teachers spend time trying to build cognitive skills so the kids can go to top colleges. Even the schools have cut back on recess to have time to prepare for all the tests.

To put it simply, psychologists have discovered that when kids don't play and build "self-regulation" -- the ability to learn from and control their emotions -- they have less self-discipline, less ability to pursue their goals.

The moral of the story is "Bring play back." This seems to be very important. But how will we adults react? "OK, you kids, I want you to spend the next hour playing, or you'll never get into Stanford." And if the kids are playing, the grownups can catch up on their work!

Obviously, unless adults learn to play, or experience leisure, the kids are not going to learn it. Kids learn from what their parents are doing. Leisure often looks like you're doing nothing in particular. Can adults still do that?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Can Starbucks Learn Local Is Beautiful?

The New York Times has a story about a local Kansas City coffeehouse forcing a neighboring Starbucks to pack it in.

"Next door, the Broadway Cafe was bustling. 'You win because of the coffee,' said Jon Cates, one of the owners..."

While coffee quality may be in the Broadway Cafe's favor, it's hardly the only reason coffeehouse lovers prefer the Broadway. This phenomenon is going on around Seattle, too, as places like Herkimer and Zoka and Louisa's gather in the caffeinated set while Starbucks scratches its head about what to do.

As the espresso version of a gas station, Starbucks may have enjoyed popularity for fuel 'n run types during the fast-lane boom of the '90s and early turn of the century. Starbucks outlets may get you on your way with a minimum of waiting -- there's even an Apple project to iPhone your order in so you don't have to do all that dreary standing in line -- but as such they don't really want customers tarrying over their double latte talls.

As we enter a new Slow Era, however, with a slowing economy and less insane lifestyle, coffee is returning to its roots as a linger-and-talk beverage. The coffeehouses that have lots of places to sit, a down-home atmosphere and plenty of people around will win over a Starbucks any time.

The irony in Seattle, of course, is that Starbucks actually is a "local" company. We can only hope Howard Schultz and his merry band of coffee purveyors get clued about changing times and demographics. Bigger stores, more lounging, a softer pace...will it work? Or is the "chain" reputation of Starbucks too entrenched to bring people back?

It's possible there are just too many coffeehouses, too, as my husband's "End of the Universe" (Lewis Black routine) video below shows:

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"Slow Is Beautiful" Makes 'Notable Titles' List

Elliott Bay Book Co.'s Karen Maeda Allman sent along wonderful news today: Slow Is Beautiful has made the American Booksellers Association's "Shop Local Notable Titles" list. The list honors "informative titles on the importance of building and strengthening a vibrant local economy" and includes Bill McKibben's Deep Economy and Robert Putnam's Better Together, as well as my friend David Korten's The Great Turning. Thank you ABA!

The full list is available from BookWeb here. Note other titles from New Society Publishers, who published my book:

The New Village Green: Living Light, Living Local, Living Large, by Stephen Morris.

The Better World Handbook: Small Changes that Make a Big Difference, by Ellis Jones.

Great Neighborhood Book: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Placemaking, by Jay Walljasper.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Snow Means Slow

Have you noticed how much slower life becomes when snow hits in Seattle? Particularly striking is the lack of car traffic. It's as though three-fourths of car trips are entirely discretionary. Somehow even though all these people aren't driving around, the world doesn't come to a stop.

We need to treat more days as "snow days," where we focus on things that don't require getting into a car and driving around. It would help us slow down, but also would help save the planet.

My husband loves to ride his bike in the snow!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Social networking no substitute for in the flesh

New York Times ("Friending, Ancient or Otherwise") talks about the new “oral” culture in discussing on line social networks, quoting academics saying that this kind of communication is similar to tribal communication of the past. That we’re basically talking when we blog and text message. After running on like this for several lines, the author finally asks whether there is any credence to this, quoting another academic saying that the more time we spend online “talking,” the less time we spend really talking.

Yes, people may be communicating online, but let’s face it. Nothing is a substitute for the REAL THING! One of the themes in my book is about learning to tell the difference between real and counterfeit community. Television and malls comprise counterfeit community! Is social networking counterfeit community? Well, it’s not as bad as TV and malls, but it should be being used to get people to talk face to face.

In a time of disasters, gap needs shrinking

The “Slow” culture — one in which we have time to enjoy the things that matter –- requires a small gap between the rich and the poor. Yes, we can all live a little more simply and slow our pace, but to really live the “good” life , we need equality. A fresh example: In the Nov 17th issue of the Nation Naomi Klein (Shock Doctrine) writes about private companies like Blackwater who will provide services to the rich in times of emergency, like fires or terrorist attacks. She tells about how a private company sprayed fire retardant on some of the houses in the San Diego fire and she goes on to tell about other companies who will provide escape in private jets for disasters like Katrina. Of course it’s all very expensive. Obviously, when the rich get tax breaks, they can afford things like this, while the rest of us have to make do with reduced services of the government who have cut back because the rich aren’t paying their share of the taxes.

The invidious daisy chain of exploitation is currently on display in Lewis County here in Washington State. Record floods have devastated homes and businesses, but the average Joe and Jill is being hit far harder than Wal-Mart and Home Depot, and the logging companies that caused the destruction. In fact, logging companies not only get government subsidies but walk away from devastation without paying a nickel.

Perhaps the rich should be levied a "disaster tax" that would help pay for the public's recovery after the ruination of other people's lives that greed and arrogance cause.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

When Traffic Is Too Slow to be Beautiful

Some slow things are not beautiful:

Drivers waste nearly an entire work week each year sitting in traffic on the way to and from their jobs according to the Texas Transportation Institute's 2007 Urban Mobility Report. The study concludes that drivers wasted 2.9 billion gallons of fuel while sitting in traffic. Together with the lost time, traffic delays cost the nation $78.2 billion, the study estimates.

The only way we’ll fix a problem in this country is to put it into the form of dollars. Maybe nobody considers our lost time important, but Americans do understand losing money.

Try to spread these figures around as you talk to people. Maybe someday the facts will wake us up!

To Understand Spying, The Film "Lives of Others"

A foreign film, "The Lives of Others," offers us a different kind of hero. In WWII's battle against Nazi fascism, a distinguished hero was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man put to death for being part of a plot to assassinate Hitler. Few of us feel that we could be that kind of hero. But maybe we could be the kind of hero depicted in this East German film, where a government agent chooses to "spy" without incriminating a popular writer, ultimately protecting the writer from being blacklisted and having his career destroyed.

The hero, the government spy, bears the consequences of his actions. And that seemed to be how the East German Police (Stasi) controlled people — by threatening to ruin their careers. In my book Slow Is Beautiful I discuss how this was also true during Hitler’s reign. Roger Gottlieb, in A Spirituality of Resistance, tells the stories of the "little men" in the Gestapo who obeyed orders for the sake of furthering their careers. Yes, he says, there were Jew haters, but most of the people just went along because they didn’t want to threaten their careers by not supporting the Nazis.

How many of us compromise for the sake of our careers? We may not be spying on others for the Bush administration, but we go along with things every day that are leading us to a nation with hollow freedoms and eroded well-being. How many times do we do questionable things because it would be good for our careers? Like working for corporations that support Bush or ruin the environment or pay low wages or cut people’s benefits. We’re not really bad people. We’re just not doing what we know is right.

Few of us can be Bonhoeffers, but maybe more of us can be a “little” hero, by finding small ways to be true to ourselves. The spy’s career in the East German civil service was ruined by his resistance, but in the end his life was redeemed.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Farmers Markets: Social Groceries

It’s clear that we must create a vibrant sustainable culture that resists the lethal corporate consumer culture. One of the most exciting things happening in this arena is the food revolution. As Michael Pollen writes about farmers markets, it’s not just that you get good food, but you also participate in community:

“We like what happens socially at the farmer’s market, which is quickly emerging as the new public square in this country. If you compare what happens in the aisles at the grocery store with the farmer’s market, think about what a world of difference that is. At the farmer’s market country meets city. Children are introduced to where their food comes from. People politic. They have petitions. They schmooze. It’s an incredibly vibrant space.”

Farmers markets reduce the use of energy from shipping food thousands of miles as well as contribute to people’s health with their fresh and organic food. I value the farmers markets for the lesson they teach Americans: How to hang out with each other for the sheer joy of it.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Enjoy Your Life, and Others Will Too

We’re supposed to be enjoying ourselves. People on the right are often filled with hate, but those of us on the left are angry or self-righteous a lot of the time. The best way to draw people into our movement is to welcome people and help them enjoy themselves. One of our longtime progressives, Barbara Ehrenreich, reminds us of that in her new book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy.

She shows how essential collective joy is to us, as human beings, and how dancing always threatens those in power. Where are our liberal dances! Bring back rock and roll parties. Let’s scare the people in charge!

Catch Barbara's message in a New York Times piece.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Re-Localization: How It Comes Together

I just returned from our every-Sunday Ballard Farmers' Market where we got some salmon that was swimming yesterday (which makes you a little sad, really. I understand vegetarians!). We got some lettuce, carrots, and potatoes which were in the ground yesterday, and some eggs that were under chickens early this morning.

Then I came back home and settled down to a cup of tea from our local, independent herb/tea shop to read the current issue of Bob Banner’s wonderful publication, HopeDance. HopeDance is a newspaper, published every other month in San Luis Obispo, CA, that explores all things progressive and sustainable. This month’s issue is on the new localization movement.

(Or relocalization. Which is better, localization or relocalization? In some ways we’re returning to the past, but in other ways we’re creating something new.)

It’s an incredibly exciting issue, talking about all the things people are doing to revive our neighborhoods and local regions, everything from farmers' markets to shopping local.

It’s always nice to know you’re part of a larger movement, and localization is what we’re trying to do in Phinney Ecovillage. While some communities start with “issues,” like peak oil or shopping locally, we started with the “social” factor first. Our principal efforts are to bring people together to enjoy convivial conversation and to get to know their neighbors. Of course we focus on issues like global warming, peak oil, and shopping local, but our emphasis is always on community and congeniality. We like to call our little ecovillage "an oasis of conviviality."

In a way, these goals are harder in our neighborhood because it’s a very progressive area and people tend to see more value in coming out to hear an anti-war lecture than just getting together to talk with their neighbors.

But maybe getting to know your neighbors is the most radical step we can take, if “radical” means getting back to the roots. Maybe if we learn to care about our own species, we’ll learn to care about other species. If we learn community with each other, we can learn community with the Earth.

Of course global warming and peak oil will force us to return to the local because we cannot go on shipping things around the globe, using all that oil. But how much better if we create some models that work while we have a chance! The wonderful thing is that we’re not talking about bitter medicine here, but a leisurely, joyful way of life.

In any case, check our the May/June issue of HopeDance on (re)localization!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Time to Declare E-Mail Bankruptcy?

When I give talks on my book, Slow is Beautiful, I ask people what their time issues are. More and more people say it’s email. Finally, a way to deal with it has emerged: Send out a message telling everyone that you’re declaring e-mail bankruptcy and that you’re starting over anew.

I’ve also thought of leaving on my “out of office” message all the time. That way, no one expects an answer very soon, and as time passes, they’ll forget they ever sent you a message.

The polite thing might be to have an auto-response that says, “ I’m overwhelmed with email. Please accept my apology for not replying in a timely fashion.”

As a Washington Post article indicates, really important people are starting to get out of email altogether. Maybe not having email will be the new status indicator and everyone will follow suit and the problem will be solved!