Friday, January 14, 2011

Are we clever enough to change?

In theory we are, yes. However, in practice we seem to be a rather stupid species. Unless we are forced to make changes, nothing happens.

For over three years I have been having back pains. Not all the time, but often and painful enough to be a real nuisance. Lots of sports I can’t do because one wrong step and I hardly get out of bed for two days. Not fun. At some point I got an x-ray, and basically it turned out that the only real ‘cure’ is to strengthen the muscles around the area. So, what did I do? Pretty much nothing. Why? God knows! Recently I started to do some more exercises, but only because the pains have gone from yearly to monthly to almost weekly. A few days ago I went swimming, the first good exercise in at least 6 months. And what did I do? Something like trying to break the world record over 1000m... The result? I strained my back which is now in the worst pain ever. I didn’t even know you can hurt yourself swimming…
Anyway, that’s my own stupid self at work. The point is that, very often, we only start looking after ourselves when we have no other choice left. We wait until we have almost crashed into the wall before we change the direction. A rather painful approach. Not surprisingly, by far the number one motivation for people to give up smoking is when the doctor tells you it’s quit or die.

Here’s another example: Bread. I make my own bread, and so I go to the local mill in the andalucian town where I live to buy my flour. Once a month or so I get five kilos of organic spelt and have a chat with one of the guys who run the business. Today I went there, and when I asked how things are, he said that the business is quite low at the moment. I said that I was surprised because I had thought that even in crisis, people will still continue to eat bread. Well, they do. But one thing doesn’t happen anymore: bread is not being thrown away. The guy from the mill told me that before, during the times of economic boom, people bought a bread one day, ate half, threw it away at night and bought a new, fresh one the next day. Now they keep the old one until it’s eaten completely. Similar story with bakeries: When money was nothing to worry about, the bakery shelves were kept full all day long, and what was left in the evening landed in the bin. With the economy crumbling away now, bakeries make only the amount of bread they can actually sell. Good idea, isn’t it?
I mean, in the most positive sense, that’s the power of the crisis! Without it, thousands of tons of bread would be thrown away every day. That’s land wasted to grow the grain, oil to harvest, mill and transport it, more energy to make the bread, and then more energy and more land to get rid off it. How can we be so stupid to let that happen? No wonder the planet is fucked.

"I'll be more enthusiastic about encouraging thinking outside the box when there's evidence of any thinking going on inside it." (Terry Pratchett)

Looks like we don’t need less crisis, but more. Learning the hard way.

Take climate change: Are we really going to switch voluntarily to electro cars and bicycles? No way! Unless we are forced by a three metre sea level rise or oil depletion, we’ll continue to burn as much oil as we need for our wasteful and polluting lifestyle.
It would be relatively easy to change. For example, increasing the oil price artifically through taxes, in a controlled way, using the money to invest in stuff that makes sense – education, health, renewables, etc. Taking it gradually to, let’s say three Euros a litre of petrol within one or two years. What would happen? First of all, far less traffic. Emptier roads, cleaner skies, healthier oceans. Less stress for everybody and everything. It would lead to more regional food, and more regional travelling. That would be good for the local economy, and more sustainable for the planet. With oil being more expensive, all things made of plastic would be more expensive too. So we would start to make mobile phones that last 10 or 20 years, instead of one. Most packaging would disappear – from the supermarket shelves and from the landfills. It would be the end of cheap plastic toys, crappy one Euro T-shirts and bottled water from the Fuji islands. And so on and so on.
The only problem is the word WOULD. And a lack of clever politicians.

I fear we need to crash really badly before these needed changes will happen. And I will probably have to pull quite a few more muscles before I start doing some proper exercises for my back. Or doing something about my bad posture while writing on the computer…

Sadly, most of us are just not clever enough to change voluntarily. Not yet.


  1. Reminds me of the film I watched last night, The Day the Earth Stood Still. Earthlings promised to change, to stop killing Mother Earth, only when faced with annihilation by Klaatu et al.

  2. Bad news: Unfortunately, I agree that people need to really suffer before they decide to make difficult decisions en masse. Hopefully this will be the crash that makes us change direction. But as Mr Karl Marx was hoping the same thing about 150 years ago, maybe it won't be. Personally, I think the crash we learn from will be an ecological crash that seriously impacts on human population numbers, not a financial one that impacts only on our wealth.

    Good news: On the issue of back pain, I recently started suffering from a daily pain in my lower back, which lasted for 6 weeks or so. It just so happened that I was already planning on going back to the gym after about four months of almost no exercise. Within a week of starting my gym routine, which wasn't at all focused on my back, my backache was gone. A month later, it's still gone. So Claus, stick with the exercises at least 3 times a week, don't push too hard, and good luck!