Friday, July 8, 2011

Social fragmentation in a world growing unequal

"The arrangements of the circumstances of the people must be such that poverty shall disappear, that everyone, as far as possible, according to his rank and position, shall share in comfort and well-being. We see amongst us men who are overburdened with riches on the one hand, and on the other those unfortunate ones who starve with nothing; those who possess several stately palaces, and those who have nowhere to lay their head. Some we find with numerous courses of costly and dainty food; whilst others can scarcely find sufficient crusts to keep them alive."
- The Baha'i Writings

It might seem a little odd that in a world with approximately one billion people living in poverty, economists and thinkers worldwide are beginning to raise concern that wealth is increasing.

But increasing among whom? The fact is, billions of dollars are becoming more and more concentrated into the hands of the very few. And while we are seeing many of the world's traditionally poorer countries increasing in wealth and living standards, inequality is nonetheless on the rise within most countries.

In a recent talk on social inequality at the OECD, Richard Freeman, a Professor of Economics at Harvard University, demonstrated that an increase in the income of those at the extreme top has significantly widened the inequality gap, a trend he describes as "the development of the global billionaire elites." Freeman provided a number of potential explanations for this trend, including the increasing power of big banks and larger incentives to pay high bonuses. But he also spoke of an absence of much-needed social institutions to support more inclusive growth and more socially desirable outcomes - a reconnection between social and economic objectives.

Since we are talking about an increase in wealth, and not an increase in poverty, this problem may not seem so obvious. Freeman thus sought to illustrate some of the potential consequences of increased within-country inequality, and this included a break down in social cohesion and trust, and the widening segregation of different groups in society, who live not only with differentiated access to opportunities, but pretty much in different worlds. In an article published in the New York Times earlier this year, economist Dan Ariely described similar findings:

One thing that inequality does is it creates not a single society but multiple societies. It might be that inequality is creating another layer of separation between the in group and the out group.

According to Ariely, society is becoming more fragmented. The inequality he describes is not concerned with the natural unequal distribution of income due to inherent differences in individual talent and capacity; rather, he is describing the social consequences of the coexistence of extreme wealth and extreme poverty in society. As Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, noted in the same article: "2011 is defined by a 21st century paradox: as the world grows together, it is also growing apart."

In a talk on social cohesion at the OECD earlier this year, UN Under-Secretary, Rebecca Grynspan, addressed the role that social policy plays in contributing to (or potentially remedying) this inequality. She discussed the problem of "blind" social policy (that is, policy that does not explicitly take social cohesion into consideration). In her example, even policies with very noble goals - such as universal healthcare or education - if applied indiscriminately can increase inequality by creating a "dual system". Essentially, this would offer "poor services" for the poor at inferior - even inadequate - standards compared to the rest of society, reinforcing inequality at the systemic level. Quality control of these systems, she argued, comes from offering the same system to those who have the buying power to demand - and choose - a decent system.

Grynspan introduced the importance of building a more participative type of democracy into the discussion, highlighting that this problem is more than an economic one. She talked about the need for the establishment of norms and institutions that encourage and facilitate participation in decision-making by those very individuals who are affected by these policy decisions. In this context, Grynspan asserted the need for a "common project for society" - and here the ramifications of inequality and its creation of "multiple societies" became manifest. Grynspan asked: how can we build consensus for this "common project" among class divides? This problem, she pointed out, is not just a philosophical one of differing ideologies and values, but also a highly practical one - inequality leads to spatial segmentation as well as social:

Where do unequal societies meet in a spatially fragmented society? What is it that gives us grounds to think we are capable of having one project for all of society, and not fragmented groups with fragmented projects?

Inequality undermines not only social cohesion, but also segregates the spaces within which we interact, that is, everything from the transport systems we use to the markets we exchange in. By segmenting society into untouchable pockets of 'extreme rich' and 'extreme poor', humanity is being denied the passageway to realising its oneness. If we agree with Grynspan - that one indicator of a truly cohesive and prosperous society is that its members not only get along but can work together purposefully as peers and as agents of their own transformation - side by side to improve the wellbeing of their individual and collective lives - then some basis for unity and common ground is vital.

As the opening quote alludes to, the quest to overcome extreme inequality does not aspire to uniform equality - this is impossible and even highly undesirable for our diverse human race. But neither should we accept the unjust fate that a billion of the world's people should "scarcely find sufficient crusts to keep them alive" in a world where income is actually increasing overall. Particularly when this repartition is based on little more than unequal opportunity and systemic injustice, rather than actual capacity or effort.

The various commentators cited in this post suggest that there is a role for public policy to play in rectifying this. What principles should guide this policy? In addition to a principle that calls for the elimination of extreme wealth and poverty, how can justice be conceived of as an operating principle? Economist Amartya Sen offers an interesting insight in his book The Idea of Justice:

What moves us, reasonably enough, is not the realisation that the world falls short of being completely just - which few of us expect - but that there are clearly remediable injustices around us which we want to eliminate. Our own sense of justice is an innate force that we strive to develop by the belief that we can make some changes even with the fractured governance structures that hold our world together.

What could be some other guiding principles? Freeman and Grynspan stress the need for social institutions - what kind of systems or social institutions could address these social ails, to promote more inclusive growth and more social cohesion?

The Sen quote also suggests that there is a role for the individual to play in overcoming remediable injustices through the innate force of "our own sense of justice". What could be the individual's role in trying to overcome the issues discussed here?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Worker Identity

“In most of contemporary thinking, the concept of work has been largely reduced to that of gainful employment aimed at acquiring the means for the consumption of available goods. The system is circular: acquisition and consumption resulting in the maintenance and expansion of the production of goods and, in consequence, in supporting paid employment. Taken individually, all of these activities are essential to the well-being of society. The inadequacy of the overall conception, however, can be read in both the apathy that social commentators discern among large numbers of the employed in every land and the demoralization of the growing armies of the unemployed.”

Report after report sites the chronic underemployment of the American population and decreasing home prices afflicting communities throughout the country. Many approaches within the field of economics take a view of systemic failure on the side of market-influencing policy - both fiscal and monetary. Yet not many economists have attempted to examine the question from the perspective of the identity of the American worker. How has mainstream economic thinking changed the concept of work for the average American worker? The quote above suggests that for much of society, work is losing its meaning. Rather than being a realm through which individuals apply and develop their talents for the wellbeing of society, work has become a means to secure the income needed to fuel a consumer lifestyle.

To what extent does this loss of values in an approach towards work contribute towards declining motivation and work ethic? What impact might such a trend have on the economic recession? This is an area of study that has perhaps received inadequate attention. However, recent studies have indicated that even higher salaries are not a great enough incentive to overcome declining motivation to perform well in one’s job. These studies do not on the whole conclude that low morale is characteristic of human nature, but rather that motivation comes from a different part of the human being, a part that cannot flourish so easily within the cogs and spokes of the labor market. Economists such as E.F. Schumacher have supported this idea, claiming that this growing apathy is an attitude that is reinforced and even promoted by a system that places the American worker in the same category as other goods that can be traded on a market. In his book Small is Beautiful , Schumacher shares the following related thought:

"In the market place, for practical reasons, innumerable qualitative distinctions which are of vital importance for man and society are suppressed; they are not allowed to surface. Thus the reign of quantity celebrates its greatest triumphs in "The Market." Everything is equated with everything else. To equate things means to give them a price and thus to make them exchangeable. To the extent that economic thinking is based on the market, it takes the sacredness out of life, because there can be nothing sacred in something that has a price. Not surprisingly therfore, if economic thinking pervades the whole of society, even simple non-economic values like beauty, health, or cleanliness can survive only if they prove to be "economic."
Schumacher was not the first to read the effects of the market on humanity in this way. A related thought is shared by great thinker and historian, Karl Polanyi in his book The Great Transformation:

"The crucial point is this: labor, land, and money are essential elements of industry; they also must be organized in markets; in fact, these markets form an absolutely vital part of the economic system. But labor, land, and money are obviously not commodities; the postulate that anything that is bought and sold must have been produced for sale is emphatically untrue in regard to them. In other words, according to the emperical definition of a commodity they are not commodities. Labor is only another name for a human activity which goes with life itself, which in its turn is not produced for sale but for entirely different reasons, nor can that activity be detached from the rest of life, be stored or mobilized..."
When it comes to causes we believe in – whether this is our family, acts of volunteering or even our jobs - humans value qualities such as diligence, purpose, mastery, autonomy and dedication among others. As Polayni points out, human motivation to work - for our lives to be productive and to contribute something to others - goes well beyond the narrow goal of selling our labor. It is part of who we are, and a daily activity that can add purpose and richness to our lives, if undertaken in the right spirit and for a noble purpose.

There is enough evidence to suggest that markets and institutions need to value these qualities, not simply because they will function more effectively as a result, but because these systems are not at the centre of society – humans are. They should thus be designed to reflect our nature and spiritual needs, and not the other way around. What, then, are the characteristics of societies, institutions and markets that also value these qualities? How can the American economic system incorporate these values into its functioning?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Discourse and Identity in the Community

"The community is, of course, more than a mere collection of individuals, but is characterised by a sense of its own identity and purpose"
- Tones & Green

The purpose of a community

Lev, of Anonymous Cowgirl, provided a thoughtful response to our post on the purpose of the community:
If the generation and application of knowledge for spiritual and material development is placed at the centre of the community, then whole worlds open up. Now our community has a purpose. The endeavours undertaken with this new conception of community would be more than gathering together to watch a favourite television show or a favourite sports team.
This distinction between 'community' as an end in itself, and a 'community' united to work for a greater purpose - its own spiritual and material development - is essential. As more of us are drawn towards the idea of a 'community', partly as an alternative route to the atomistic and isolating nature of an increasingly individualistic society, we will naturally seek to understand how best to channel the powers of unity and cooperation characteristic of community life.

Who belongs to the community?

The community can be conceived of as a 'place'. Our community building efforts occur within our neighbourhood, and it seems that in these small settings, relationships are formed and reinforced organically, in the shared spaces of local markets and playgrounds, where paths cross as naturally in the elevator as they do on the footpath on the way to the local school. Where by living, working and learning together, communities can come to understand the value of cooperation and reciprocity.

However, a collection of atomised individuals whose front doors happen to be facing the same corridor is no match for Lev's description. A community's identity is extrinsically linked to its purpose, towards which its members work collectively.

How does the community perceive itself?

Our community resides primarily in a cité, the name given to French social housing typically made up of a cluster of high rise apartment towers. The image of the cité portrayed in the media,
in political discourse and - by extension - the consciousness of French society, is a stark contrast to its reality. Though life in the cité is hardly rosy, a shared playground and grassed area have encouraged children of diverse backgrounds to grow up together, giving birth to a rare sense of neighbourliness. Its residents, our friends, are warm, giving and hardworking. Despite their various talents and capacities, many of them are disempowered by structural constraints such as limited education and lack of employment.

Overarching these structures is something much more powerful - the stigma attached to living in the cité. Picking up a newspaper, one gets the impression that the cité is the state's problem, filled with violent youth threatening the security of the nation and its citizens. In reality, a couple of isolated incidents of violent outbursts by cité youth, spanning back a couple of decades, sparked a media-led metamorphosis of the social entity the 'cité' (and by default its residents). The 'cité' of the media's imagination is something to be contained and controlled.

These ideas about the cité exist because of the power of discourse, and because of the discourse of those in power. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu describes this as "the discourses and categories developed by professionals in the representation of the social world - politicians, journalists, state managers, experts in public and private sectors, civil and religious leaders, academics, activists, etc. and the reality effects they wield."

Bourdieu's description of the "reality effects" of discourse assumes that discourse does not sit apart from the world. Rather, it shapes norms, structures, practices and even individuals. Discourse in this sense not only describes reality; it creates reality.

In our neighbourhood, some teachers have internalised ideas about these youth, seeing their 'education' as a way to channel them towards easy, vocational exits. Added to this, a lack of trust in cité residents can disadvantage individuals in various social undertakings (e.g. job applications, interactions with police, educational choice).

By seeing the cité as a problem, the government conceives of its own role as being to prescribe the remedy. Political parties gain favour by promising to combat the very problems they helped invent. Larger and more brutal police forces are installed. An endless provision of social services (welfare, social housing) is the bandaid of choice, bringing with it a set of values that promotes dependency on the state over the social ties of the community, where individuals are encouraged to become the consumers of state products.
Of course, in amongst the neighbourliness, real problems exist in the cité. As Bourdieu describes, discourse creates reality and is reinforced by the persistence of this reality, and that includes the shaping of individual identity. Many sociologists, such as Loic Wacquant, will talk of the cycle of identity crisis, where some youth, seeing themselves portrayed as 'problem youth', take ownership of this image, partly in retaliation to a world that's given up on them, and partly because this is the image they've grown up knowing.

I don't have the first hand experience to comment on this theory, though it's certainly worth exploring. What I have noticed is that there are many youth who overtly reject the 'problem youth' identity - and yet, their talents and capacities remain hidden, even from their own eyes, just as they are hidden from the eyes of their educators and local politicians. Though this discourse may not define them, it can deny them an awareness of their own latent potential, without which their faith in the potential of their neighbourhood to be transformed into that community who participates in the generation and application of knowledge for its own spiritual and material development, and in their own ability to become actors in this process, fades away.

Such an environment could be accompanied by a decline in community trust and a breakdown of bonds. Wacquant warns of "territorial stigmatisation", where "communal places bathed in shared emotions and joint meanings, supported by practices and institutions of mutuality" give way to "indifferent 'spaces' of mere survival and contest."

The missing words

During conversations with youth from our neighbourhood, I've noticed that society's discourse can produce contradictions within their minds, between their actual lived experiences and memories in their home, the cité, and the skewed perception of these memories when articulated through the language of the media (and of the myriad friends and families who, having internalised this language, constantly repeat it).

Though these youth regularly describe their neighbourhood as 'pourri' (rotten) and 'beyond fixing', when I question them about the real characteristics of their neighbourhood (or at least those I've witnessed), using the words "friendliness", "sense of community", "service" and "safety", and describing the actions through which these qualities are expressed (people greeting each other politely, children able to wander freely about the neighbourhood without supervision, shopkeepers appreciating their acts of service...), they immediately contradict themselves and even praise the cité. It's as though the manifestation of these words and images elevate their thoughts beyond the 'rotten' tag and free their eyes to re-evaluate the potential of their community against these newly discerned benchmarks.

What is missing are the words.

To take another example - French policy forbids the word 'community', (which it defines as a collection of homogeneous interests that come together as a potential threat to French national identity). One cannot study 'community development' in university, and governments cannot create departments for the 'community.' It's as though the concept has vanished from French consciousness. As noted, 'community' is already happening - on some level. Parents mind each others' children, youth contribute to the running of the household, and look out for the wellbeing of the younger ones. But without the language, these examples of social relationships cannot be brought into conscious existence. So just how are we to build a vision of empowerment without the community? How are we to create adequate descriptions of reality when language itself is impoverished?

New words

It seems that a renewed language and connected set of images is needed, one that expresses more completely the potentialities of the individual, the community, and the structures that give expression to this potential. In acting as the lens through which individuals can more authentically interpret and conceive of their experiences, such language can bring to light those elements of reality hidden by want of the right words.

The acquisition of language is closely linked to the development of spiritual perception. Spiritual perception in an individual is that power that enables him/her to recognise, evaluate and act upon the discursive constructs and the forces in individual and collective life. E.g. What is injustice? What is prejudice? What are my talents and capacities? How can I make greater efforts to apply them? What effects do our acts of service have on ourselves and our community?

In this sense, individuals learn to distinguish between destructive and constructive forces, and to build on the latter. And perhaps conceiving of this new reality gives birth to a desire to create it, finding expression in new social practices - like youth mentoring younger youth, parents supporting their children's development, all serving the needs of the neighbourhood.

Small steps of 'acting' through service to the community are having a minor but noticeable effect on reshaping reality in our neighbourhood. E.g. In accompanying youth on their 'service' projects, I noticed the surprise in some neighbours who were forced to question their assumptions that kids from the cité caused nothing but trouble.

Can a new image of these youth be created if they first believe in it themselves? And if they understand their identities as predominantly spiritual, as the bearers of God-given talents and capacities that reach their fruition when put to service in their efforts to improve themselves and their own community? What effects could that have on the wider community's identity and social practices?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Purpose Maximization?

So... I've been thinking a lot about how to implement economic models that implement ideas associated with spiritual empowerment and spiritual growth. After all, one of the motivations for this blog is a feeling that we need to stray away from models of profit-maximization and towards models that more adequately explain human motivations and behaviors. This video's got me thinking that purpose maximization has got to play a role somewhere in the process. Check it out!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Food for Thought

Today I was reading a journal article by Ingrid Burkett of the International Association for Community Development. The article discusses the idea of re-localisation, and particularly the recent interest in local food:
Yes it could be said that local food systems potentially contribute to ecologically sustainable development because they can reduce the food miles of our could also be said that local food systems play an important role in building strong and vibrant local economies...however, many of the 'organic' and 'slow food' events that are occurring around the world reach out to the 'gourmet' food market with relatively little attention paid to questions regarding how poverty, access and inequality are addressed by local food production.
I think the last point that Burkett makes i
s an important one, as it tries to get to the heart of the real purpose of local food production.

A very simple example of 'local food' production I read recently can be found here. It tells the story of Alexandra Reau, a fourteen year-old girl from Michigan, who has converted her family's backyard into a small farm. She grows fruit and vegetables and sells them to regular customers in her neighourhood, who claim to value both the quality of her produce, and the fact that this initiative comes from a local youth. The story is testament to how much a fourteen year-old can accomplish when he or she makes efforts towards a noble goal.

Reau's farm contributes to her own development (she tells us that farming requires a lot of patience!) and in some sense to the local economy, both commendable ends in themselves. But what would change if this project were linked to a larger goal of community building? Or, more simply, was conceived of as providing a service to one's community? How would this change the concept of local food?

Burkett believes that "a renewed longing for community" is the real "starting point" and "social push" behind local food movements.
If we are to re-localise our communities, our motivations could be based on building strong relationships with our neighbours, engaging with the local cultures/s, improving our health and the health of those with whom we live, generating friendships across diversity or even just eating healthier, tastier food.
These "strong relationships" could be build
on trust, love and a mutual striving for individual and collective progress, and would naturally lend themselves to an exchange of material goods and services for the wellbeing of all.

I use the term 'naturally' because of a fundamental belief that each one of us has been created to bear fruits (metaphorically, at least), to develop our various talents and capacities for the benefit of others and ourselves. And where else would this service be expressed but in the spiritual and material wellbeing of one's community, the latter implying the need for a vibrant local economy to facilitate this exchange of services.

Understanding the link between communities and service, of which local food is just one example, helps us better conceptualise one purpose of the practice known as 'community development'.

Burkett does warn against romanticising the local food movement as a move back to past 'traditional' ways. The OECD has echoed this warning in its publication Community Capacity Building: Creating a Better Future Together, in the context of community capacity building:
Community capacity building and/or economic development should not be an attempt to recreate the communities or businesses of the 1950s. The world - its people and its economy - has simply changed too much...we should guard against the assumption that the past, or an alternative vision of the future, are the only or the most appropriate visions for the futures of communities is clear that the concept of community is changing. Nevertheless the geographic, indeed local element, cannot be overlooked.
Another trap to avoid falling into is believing that the greatest power an individual possesses is his or her buying power, so that the act of choosing to buy local becomes an end in itself. Human beings are not mere consumers, even though modern urban cities have been designed to promote the values of a consumer society. Brenda and Robert Vale explain this in the book Designing High Density Cities:

Most recent planning theory has ignored the vital relationships between food, energy, water and land because of access to cheap and plentiful fossil fuels. This has meant that food can be grown at a long distance from settlements and transported to them...
A capitalist society would best operate with everyone living at high densities so that the maximum number of people would need to buy everything they required, having little opportunity to provide basic services, such as growing food themselves. A high-density city is necessarily a consumer city.
Burkett describes how the concept of local food does more than change our buying habits but "challenges us to move from being consumers and passive recipients in these systems to being active participants, citizens and co-producers of the systems."

I love this idea of moving from consumers to actors, and would love to hear some more practical examples about community farms and gardens within the framework of community building. In particular, reflections on the role of the community as a "starting point". If anybody is involved in this area, please share - we're keen to learn more about it!

the city's heart

A quote I read from Jane Jacobs' iconic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities got me thinking recently:
When a city heart stagnates or disintegrates, a city as a social neighbourhood of the whole begins to suffer. People who ought to get together, by means of central activities that are failing, fail to get together. Ideas and money that ought to meet, and do so often only by chance in a place of central vitality, fail to meet. The networks of city public life develop gaps they cannot afford. Without a strong and inclusive central heart, a city tends to become a collection of interests isolated from one another. It falters at producing something greater, socially, culturally and economically, than the sum of its separated parts.
The "heart" whose passing Jacobs mourns seems to be no other than that of the community - that arena in which a mélange of minds, ideas, backgrounds and talents unite to build on and reinforce one another. Where human beings shed the burden of individualism in order to contribute to the building of something that transcends merely the sum of their separate parts.

Today's discourse on the value of the 'community' is often housed within a wider discourse on community development and local economy; yet there appears to be a universal struggle to get to the heart of what the term really means. How relevant is community life in today's urban-centred working world, with its constant flux of moving house and migration, its faster trains and all-you-can-eat internet? Are the communities of today online networks, are they those fading memories of 1950's sports clubs and church groups, are they defined by common interests, or along geographical lines like neighbourhoods?

We think the time is ripe to reconsider the purposes of the community, and to trace an outline of the potential destiny of the communities of today and tomorrow. This is not the first time we have posted about the community, but this time around, we'd like to think about the role of the community in individual and social transformation. And so, our main question:
When so many forces are pulling us the other way, why make the effort to learn about the ways and methods of community building?

Some initial thoughts....

What if our true identity, as a community, is spiritual, consisting of members working together to enable each individual to embark upon a process of learning to become protagonists of their own spiritual and material development?

What if we conceive of unity as both the instrument and the goal of creating this kind of community?

What if a commitment to this 'unity' implies a collective process of inquiry, of walking together - consulting, acting and reflecting on the process of community building?

The Baha'i writings state:
Let us take the inhabitants of a city....if they establish the strongest bonds of unity among themselves, how far they will progress, even in a brief period....
Please share your thoughts!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Consumer Society: Who Really Buys It?

Recently I was having a conversation with a group of 13 year old youth from my neighbourhood on the effects that the media and marketing have on us. We wanted to learn how to use the media to share positive messages within our community, so we started by studying some typical examples. I was surprised at how conscious the girls were of the manufactured nature of the "beauty" being sold to them through luxury advertising in order to convince them to buy things. The importance of developing the habit of analysing and reflecting on the media's messages became clear. We concluded that in a world where it's too easy to become a passive recipient to these messages, this habit helps us make decisions about whether those values correspond with our own.

But of course being completely immune to a force that permeates our day to day lives is almost impossible. One of the youth, noticing the prevalence of female models in marketing campaigns, concluded that advertisements are geared towards men. "Women don't need to be convinced as it is natural for them to go shopping."

The comment certainly raises an interesting question in the world of rising consumerism, where both men and women increasingly dispose of their income for the acquisition of more material goods. Is this daily ritual really at the core of human nature? There are, evidently, powerful social forces at play that are shaping both our habits and our behaviour. Just how is the story of who we are being retold through the fictions of the media? And to what extent is our spiritual nature being worn away by a growing, pervasive materialism?

Last week, we posted a link to a document entitled Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism, a statement of the Baha'i International Community (BIC). I really encourage you all to take a look at it if you haven't already. It discusses the challenges facing the realisation of a more sustainable development, citing consumer culture - a distortion of humanity's true nature and purpose - as one of several hindering factors to a lasting, shared prosperity.

Another interesting resource, Prosperity Without Growth, was written by Tim Jackson of the Sustainable Development Commission of the UK. As the title suggests, the document questions the sustainability of an economic model that has 'growth at all costs' at its centre, so that the pursuit of economic growth pushes forward at the expense of sustainability and well-being. Jackson asks us to consider what a new model for prosperity could look like.

Chapter 6 deals specifically with consumer culture. Jackson introduces the idea of a "language of goods." In this "language", material possessions say something important about who we are, turning objects of no value into objects of status and competition. And as the BIC document points out, this in turn "reduces human beings into competitive, insatiable consumers of goods and objects of manipulation by the market." Is marketing using this same language to create the 'shop-a-holic' image of women?

Jackson also explains how not only do we buy these possessions, but we also become attached to them. Citing examples like our CD collections or our favourite pieces of clothing, he describes how we come to think of these objects as part of the "extended self." If he's right, then it shows just how quickly our spiritual nature can become encroached by a material one. If these objects define in part who we are, then what room does that leave for our inner reality?

Both documents urge us to think about new models of prosperity and sustainable development - where the endless production and consumption of goods is no longer the purpose of life nor the cause for further social inequalities and environmental destruction. And where traits like competition, greed and apathy cease to be rewarded over behaviour that promotes unity, justice and sustainability. As it turns out, the link between the consumer urge and our current model of development (powered by a ruthless economic growth) is very strong. The system actually depends on this excessive consumption as both a driver of growth and a marker for progress as it at once reinforces and feeds off a human addiction to spending. In Jackson's words:

On the one hand, the profit motive stimulates newer, better or cheaper products and services through a continual process of the same time, the market for these goods relies on an expanding consumer demand, driven by a complex social logic...taken together, these two self-reinforcing processes are exactly what is needed to drive growth forwards.
People of all ages aspire towards bigger, better, newer things, even when their current versions work just fine. Marketing is the science of creating 'needs' that never existed. And of selling dreams. And precisely because this material acquisition will always fail to provide the ideals that the language of marketing promises us, we keep wanting more. "Consumer culture perpetuates itself precisely because it succeeds so well at failure." It's no surprise that these dreams allure us. In a world of increasing injustice, economic crisis and unprecedented environmental distress, having something to hope for is important. In a secular world, consumer culture is nourished by the human need for hope.

Both the BIC document and Jackson make no secret of the scope of change required. Jackson writes:

It is also vital to recognise that this pathology is not simply the result of some terminal quality in the human psyche. We are not by nature helpless dupes, too lazy or weak to resist the power of manipulative advertisers...rather, what emerges from this analysis is that the 'empty self' is a product of powerful social forces and the specific institutions of modern society...we need to identify opportunities for change within society - changes in values, changes in lifestyles, changes in social structure - that will free us from the damaging social logic of consumerism.

And the BIC document:

The transformation required to shift towards sustainable consumption and production will entail no less than an organic change in the structure of society itself so as to reflect fully the interdependence of the entire social body - as well as the interconnectedness with the natural world that sustains it.
So it seems that change necessitates an entire restructuring of the way we conceive of both human nature and modern society, notwithstanding the institutions that join it together, and a reconceptualisation of the 'growth at all costs' paradigm within which we currently live. It also seems that the consumer society promotes a culture of lethargy. Rather than creating protagonists of change, it specialises in manufacturing passive, distracted beings, chasing after glittery ideals that forever elude them.

The BIC document asks us what happens when we think of individuals as having "a contribution to make to the construction of a more just and peaceful social order." What happens when we step out of our role as 'producer' or 'consumer' and rephrase both our reason for being and our reason for exchanging with others? When we see ourselves as being capable of making valuable contributions to our community and society at large? When bonds of love are built and nurtured with those who are working with us? Where has this definition of human relationships, of the human being gone?

Do these values have to be at ends with a stable economic society? I don't think so. I think they can even be a motor towards the type of sustainable prosperity that both the BIC and Jackson - and I daresay most of us - hope for.

* * *
Clearly, the scale of change being called for is much greater than creating the right media campaign. However, those thirteen year old youth feel like it's a good place to start. And why not? The media is their voice to the world, it can be used to provoke thought, to rewrite what being human means and also to remind individuals that they do have a choice in all this. If the media tells us who we are, then we need to create images of the human nature we believe in.

So as part of their desire to learn about changing the neighbourhood, they have created posters that ask their neighbours to think about the characteristics of their ideal community. In a sense, they are reminding those neighbours that they too have a role to play in its realisation. This weekend we're going to stick those posters around the neighbourhood, in local shops and apartment buildings. Perhaps it won't change so much too quickly. But it's their opportunity to act, and to give voice to their approach to transformation.

So now there are some questions we'd like to throw out to you, our readers:

How would this conception of the human being change the language of the media: the messages we share and the people we portray?

Do you have any examples of work being carried out in your community that illustrates the nature to serve humanity, to serve as an actor for change?

Building blocks for the new model of a post-consumer world, we could call it.