Ethical Consumption

I just read a posting on the website,, and clicked on the environment section which talks about the failure of environmental movements to engage the general public. One of their proposed solutions is the idea of ethical consumption, where products are stamped as being more ethical, as a result of fair labour practices and so forth. But then I started thinking about a wider concept based on the individual, what if there was an ethical consumption movement, that challenged each and every one of us to deconstruct ‘wants’ and ‘needs’, before we bought something to ask is it ethical for me to buy this, do I need this, and why do I want this? Will it increase my happiness for more than a moment and how much of my life energy goes into buying this? Is there any way to build a movement based on ethical purchasing that builds on a person’s agency and self-esteem? Has anyone heard George Carlin’s routine on ‘stuff’?

Obesity and Design

I remember when I was teaching undergraduate commerce students in my first year at Roads and we had an interesting discussion around rising obesity rates and many of my students associated obesity with negative personal traits. I asked them to ‘deconstruct’ the issue, where there structural reasons for higher rates today than in previous generations? One can quickly look to the rise of fast food outlets, and now with drive through ordering, and calories from fast food tends to be less nutrient dense and contain more calories. A researcher, Elizabeth Kristjanson, in the Ottawa Neighbourhood Study, has shown that there is a definite link between the number of fast food places in a neighbourhood and obesity, and people who live in a neighbourhood with small, specialty food stores are slimmer. And there may be a correlation between walkability, access to year round local food markets, green space and diversity of recreational spaces. So, it is all a question of deliberative design for health, are our municipal governments capable of this kind of leadership?

Innovation and Design

Have been asked to speak about ‘policy and social innovation’ next week at the University of Waterloo, so have been trolling around on Ted Talks on innovation on this wonderfully sunny Sunday afternoon. A close friend of mine (Tim Penner) defines innovation as an outcome of facilitating collaboration, ideas that work and grow and prosper organically if given a communication-rich ecosystem that supports idea-sharing and open-minded testing. There are three TED Talks worth noting, one by Charles Leadbeater, Howard Rheingold, and the other that talks about how institutionalizing innovation–think tanks, centres of excellence–are anathema to fostering behaviours that lead to innovation, by Clay Shirky. If this is indeed the case, what new structures, what kinds of government policies are needed to foster a culture of innovation, and particularly, for me, social innovation. Rheingold talks about the relationship between communication, media and collective action, and that new forms of cooperation can create new forms of wealth. Should government policy in the 21st century be aimed at strengthening social infrastructure in new ways? What are the new models of governance? Finally, Paul Bennett, discusses how design and reframing the ordinary can inform new policy, by putting oneself into the other’s perspective. At the end of his video, there is a brilliant shorter video on climate change that ironically answers some of the questions that first motivated me to begin this blog, that we should move the communications from what we have to give up to what we have to create to reduce our impacts on the environment.

A Wave of Change

I have talked a lot about the failure of the environmental movement to create a cohesive social movement that both informs and influences the political agenda consistently over time. Another failure, and one we academics should own, is the failure of sustainable development discourse to widen its discussion to embrace poverty, power and conflict. This video reminds me we have also neglected culture and how culture and social processes create our reality and shape what we see as normal. We all live in a cultural reality, our culture can make it seem quite natural to live as consumers. For example, it is ‘natural’ for us to be able to identify hundreds of brand logos while few of us can identify the majority of plants in our communities or where our waste goes. Watch this video from the Worldwatch Institute’s on how we can harness the world’s leading institutions–education, the media, business, governments, traditions, and social movements–to reorient cultures toward sustainability.


Well, today is brilliantly sunny, the last two days and temperature have been wonderful, a mild winter so far. Was thinking about how much fear rules our lives, and what a powerful motivator it is to do nothing, rather than take action. It certainly reduces human ‘agency’, the will or the intent to act. And besides the storm warnings, the red alerts, there is an added twist, all the magazine articles, newspaper discussions about how to live longer, take this vitamin, try this therapy, power exercise, exfoliate, what is wrong with just being. Maybe by trying to live as long as possible, we miss the joy of simply living? And the third variable is how serious everything now seems to be, what about just going for a long walk, something I miss so much, since I broke my leg in September. I never realized how important walking every day with my dog is to my emotional well-being and without, even my thinking. Being outside and moving keeps my heart and my head reconciled.

What you don’t know, you don’t love

Today is a gray day, not much sun, and the leaves are almost gone. Just read another interesting article that I thought I would share.

It is a study of Milgram’s experiments in the 70s and how phenomenal dissociation can affect your actions with respect to the environment. Phenomenal dissociation is the lack of immediate, sensual engagement with the consequences of our everyday actions and with the human and nonhuman others that we affect with our actions. Simple things, and like most things involving humans complicated at the same time,  like the more distance between you and the environment, reduction and/or distortion in feedback, reduction of empathy, disruption of the actor’s association of the harm with his or her action all work against making changes to in our own behaviour. And most interesting, because we trust institutions to mediate on our behalf, it can actually take away from individual agency. Perhaps in some ways, consumption is a phenomenal dissociation? And could the ‘busyness’ in one’s life, the search for the perfect dinner party also be a form of distancing from what is real, what makes us human, what is important? Enough questions for a gray day.

Article: Worthy, K. 2008. Modern institutions, phenomenal dissociations, and destructiveness toward humans and the environment. Organization & Environment, 21(2): 148-170

What I Learned in Kindergarten

I just read an interesting article from a dear colleague of mine which will be published as one of the discussion papers under my Canada Research Chair. The title of the paper is “Everything I ever needed to Know About Ecosystem Based Management and Living I learnt in Kindergarten, based on a book by Robert Fulghrum (1988). What are his lessons, simply, share everything, play fair, don’t hit people, put things back from where you found them, clean up your own mess, don’t take things that aren’t yours, say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody, wash your hands before you eat, flush, warm cookies and cold milk are good for you, live a balanced life–learn some, think some, draw some and paint, sing and dance, play and work every day, take a nap in the afternoon, when you go out into the world, watch for traffic, hold hands and stick together, be aware of wonder, goldfish, hamsters, mice, the little seed in the Styrofoam cup all die. So do we, and remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned–LOOK.

I started this BLOG by asking why we aren’t acting now on stuff like climate change and biodiversity. I have always felt that people innately want to ‘do good’ and it just didn’t make any sense to me, the fundamental denial of climate change science. One could also go back to the vicious reaction to the 1970s book, Limits to Growth. Just read a fascinating journal article by Wilkinson (2009, Ecology and Society) on the “people paradox”. She says that Beck’s ideas on our denial of death and our need to seek meaning makes us deny the risks of climate change, as we need to deny our mortality to reduce our anxiety.  Thus, we minimize the severity of the problem and miminize the need for an immediate response, and so, we comfort ourselves with increased consumerism and status-seeking through material wealth. I know there is nothing more frightening for me than a feeling of helplessness and powerlessness.

Now, this isn’t going to endear me to all the folks who say we just need more education, but I have always thought what an unfair burden to place on the young, they aren’t the decision-makers making the decisions today or in some cases, not making any, that will reduce their future options. She states that “the inability of environmental education projects to promote behavioral change may rest with their failure to provide a social context for self esteem.” I guess there is a link between self esteem and feeling powerful and able to act?

What to do? Link self-esteem, with the creation of communities of action and link to people’s sense of  justice. In my work with people regarded as  leaders, people with agency, the all exhibit the one characteristic  they all exhibit is a very strong sense of social justice and many have started initiatives because of wanting to right a wrong. If she is right that “human beings are universal seekers of meaning who require unique opportunities for heroism”, then we need to find ways in which ‘moral axes’ will interact with our striving for self-esteem, identify with heroes with alternative world views, and mobilize social capital so that everyone has the capacity to engage in those behaviours necessary to not only adapt and mitigate climate change impacts, but to avoid the consequences in the first place. So, the answer lies in understanding  how our fears of mortality and our denial affects our perceptions of what is risk, and realizing that we need to change “our immortality-striving hero systems”, within and outside?


It’s a beautiful sunny Fall day here in Eastern Ontario, and I have spent most of the day on the computer, writing and reading, rather than outside. How do you reconcile the wonders of the computer–the wealth of information, knowledge to be found, connections to be made, with being outside and connected with nature. Are we more connected through space in cyberspace at the cost of being disconnected from place? Are we in more relationships through Facebook, or has the whole meaning of friendship become shallower? And what does it all mean for sustainability?

How did we ever get to believing that grass is good, and lawns are beautiful, over wildflowers? Imagine if everyone in North America just replaced their grass with native wildflower gardens, how much water we would save, how much greenhouse gas emissions would be reduce without lawn mowers, how many more butterflies would come back, humming birds. Let’s start the revolution one flower at a time, one lawn at a time, neighbourhood by community. Below is a picture from my garden.

My garden

My garden

Some thoughts on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Maybe we are missing the revolution by not recognizing the many small steps.


Connection to the environment seems important, self-consciousness, all of this matters, involving both the heart and the head. But why, oh why haven’t we been more successful in communicating? I believe that most people care about their environment, they just don’t understand how everything is connected, simple axioms, birds don’t foul in their own nest, nature produces virtually minimal waste. We have the capability now to produce buildings that produce no carbon emissions, why aren’t they everywhere? I found the attached article on Transforming, very interesting, the role that the arts have to play in helping us transform tragedy. Maybe we haven’t been communicating the beauty and magic of it all enough?Felton02

Special Places

I have often wondered if there is any connection between the places that young people travel to all over the world and spiritual places. For example, I went to the Mundi Mundi Plains in Australia with a dear friend, Jenny Onyx, and it was so magical, so beautiful, so vast. She told me that some people are frightened by the vastness, the nothingness. Is there a connection between some of these places and former indigenous spiritual places, it would be a fascinating mapping exercise.

Check out the video link on the right about flash mobs, fascinating world we live in, if we can reconcile our technology with the beauty of nature.