Adapting to change

We’re in a weird time at the moment, where COVID cases are rising fast but, here in England, we’ve not (yet) introduced any of the additional control measures seen in other countries. The latter half of this sentence is music to the ears of some, who claim that we should learn to live with the virus and just get on with our lives. But this is to miss a crucial point. When change comes along, we need to adapt to survive.

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Climate Change: Actions speak (much) louder than words

As part of my drive to get fit and to be a bit more healthy, and as regular readers will already know, I’ve recently taken up running. When the sun’s out and I have nothing pressing on my to-do list, I like nothing more than to pull on my trainers and get out for a brisk jog through the countryside. But if the weather is bad or if I have lots of other things to do, my resolve tends to weaken a little.

This plays havoc with my training programme. Especially when I have taken the perhaps rather ill-advised step of signing up for a 10km rather hilly off-road race in just over a week’s time and, quite frankly, need all of the running practice that I can get. So while I started off with plenty of time to get in the desired mileage, with every missed run the amount of training I need to do before race day gets more and more. And the chance of me actually doing it becomes less and less.

For Red Dwarf fans, this will sound remarkably like Rimmer’s revision plan. When preparing for his astronavigation exam, holographic crew member Arnold Rimmer spends so much of the available time developing an elaborate revision timetable that he now has significantly less time for revision itself. As a result of which he develops a new, compressed revision schedule. Which means that he now has even less time. And so on. Needless to say, he fails the exam. Eleven times.

It also sounds very much like our current approach to combating climate change. We start by setting some impressive looking targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a point in the distant future. We then slump back in a chair and feel very pleased with ourselves, forgetting for the moment that setting targets is not the same as actually doing something.

So we make some plans. We analyse where our greenhouse gas emissions are coming from and who the main polluters are. We produce reports explaining what will need to change if we are to meet our new emissions targets. We even create depressing scenarios of what will happen if we don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But still concrete action remains elusive.

Rather than direct our efforts to things that reduce our carbon footprint, we devote our time to finding ways to look like we’re doing something without actually having to make any of the difficult decisions. We develop complex emissions trading schemes that allow us to do what we’ve always been doing. We export carbon intensive activities to other parts of the world. We encourage each other to ‘offset’ emissions rather than reduce them.

And we get mired in arguments about technicalities. We go to great lengths to explain why it’s OK to continue to burn fossil fuels, while dismissing the potential of renewable technologies. We quibble with the way greenhouse gas emissions and atmospheric carbon dioxide are measured, as if the damage we are doing to our planet is but an artefact of the statistics we use. We wring our hands and question whether it’s even our fault at all.

Yet with each day that we do nothing, the challenges that lie before us become greater. We have more and more to do, but less and less time to do it. Our targets, once so full of promise, become a constant reminder of our inability to change our ways.

We cannot combat climate change by doing nothing.  We cannot hide behind our spreadsheets, our statistical analyses and our economic forecasts. We need to make difficult decisions. We need to change what we do and how we do it. We need to be willing to make sacrifices in the short term, so that we can ensure our longer term survival.

Our grandfathers knew all about hard work and sacrifice. Our fathers taught us that nothing good comes without great effort. But today we live under the fatal assumption that we can live without diligence and endeavour. That our technological prowess insulates us from the consequences of our actions. That our mastery of our world is such that the rules under which we have lived for millennia no longer apply. Well, we are wrong.

Whether it’s running, revision or reducing greenhouse emissions, unless we actually make an effort and do something, we have no hope of achieving our goals. Success does not come to those who sit quietly and hope for the best. Rather, it comes to those who have a goal and who give their all to achieve it. If we really want to protect our planet – and ourselves – from the ravages of climate change, we must all take action. And we must take it now.

The cost of things

I’m a big fan of the ‘slow’ movement. For those not familiar with the concept, ‘slow’ is about doing things mindfully, taking the time to focus on what we are doing and making a conscious effort to do it well. ‘Slow food’, for example, encourages people to choose fresh, high quality ingredients, to cook them with care and to take the time to enjoy eating them, preferably with family or friends.

This approach has spread – slowly – to other disciplines, so that we are now starting to see things such as ‘slow cities’, ‘slow working’ and, indeed, ‘slow living’. Often dismissed as a new-age, lefty indulgence, it is, rather, a welcome rally against the cult of speed that threatens to take over so many aspects of our lives. For adherents of slow, life is something to be savoured and enjoyed. The journey is as important as the destination.

One of my favourite slow concepts is that of ‘eigenzeit’. It comes from the German ‘eigen’, meaning one’s own, and ‘zeit’, meaning time. The idea that everything, if we are to do it well, requires a certain amount of time. Now, the particular amount of time required clearly depends on the specific task in hand, but if you try to do it any quicker than its ‘eigenzeit’, then you will inevitably do it badly or not at all.

Take my garden, for example. I know that it’s going to take me an hour to cut the grass, if I include trimming the edges and tidying up the clippings afterwards. I’ve done it quite a few times now and it has never taken me less than an hour. It sometimes takes me more time, particularly if I’m having an off day or stop to chat with my neighbour, but never less. Now, I could save time by only cutting the more visible parts of the lawn, by leaving the edges to fend for themselves or by not bothering to tidy up afterwards. But that’s not ‘cutting the grass’ as I’ve defined it. My task has an eigenzeit of sixty minutes. It’s a fact.

In a similar vein, I would like to propose the concept of ‘eigenkosten’. We already know what ‘eigen’ means, and ‘kosten’ is German for – and you may be able to guess this – costs. If we are to produce a good or a service to a certain standard of quality, there is – in my view – a minimum amount that it must cost. We might be able to shave a few pounds off here and there by being more efficient or whatever, but we will eventually reach a point where we can’t cut costs any more. That’s the ‘eigenkosten’.

If we try to drive down the cost of something below its eigenkosten, bad things happen. Some producers will just stop what they are doing and go off and try something else. We’re seeing this at the moment in the dairy industry, where farmers are selling off their herds due to the unrealistically low price that they are able to get for each pint of milk that they – or, rather, their cows – produce.

Alternatively, producers might simply struggle on, making a loss on what they do, in the hope that something will turn up or that circumstances will change. Or they might change the goods or services that they provide, sticking to the ones that they can afford to deliver or reducing the quality of what they produce. This is the situation, for example, in local government across the UK, where funding cuts are having a direct impact on the nature, scope and quality of public services.

Sometimes, however, producers will opt to respond to cost pressures by trying to hoodwink us. They will cheat. They will reduce the cost of their goods or services below the eigenkosten by using sub-standard raw materials, by cutting corners in production or by claiming to have done things that they have not. It is looking increasingly likely that this is what is happening across Europe with the substitution of horse-meat in beef products, for example, but this is hardly the only instance where producers have responded in this way.

The slow movement tells us that we need to think carefully about how much things cost to produce and how much we are willing to pay for them. We need to be prepared to pay a fair price for the things we need and to challenge those who seek to do otherwise. We need to recognise that everything  has a minimum cost – its eigenkosten – and that to seek to drive prices below this is to pay disrespect to the goods and services that we consume, as well as to those who work hard to produce them.

The buck stops here

Two weeks from today, things are going to get a lot more serious. Because in fourteen days time I will go to the office I’ve worked in for the last decade and hand over my laptop, my blackberry and my corporate credit card… in short, everything that the respectable corporate clone could possibly need. I will be well and truly on my own.

But far from being a calamity, this is a time to rejoice. Because this situation is entirely of my own choosing. That’s right. In this time of recession and rising unemployment, I have decided to leave my respectable, relatively secure job and start out on my own. Goodbye, regular pay check. Scrimping, saving self-employment, here I come.

The Buck Stops Here - Harry S. Truman Presidential Museum and Library - Independence, Missouri

(Image: Marshall Astor/Flickr)

The idea of setting up my own business started a few years ago, when I found that I wasn’t as engaged with my job as I used to be. I worked hard, but found it more and more difficult to drum up the enthusiasm that used to accompany me on my way to work. And I found that, despite rising up through the ranks of the company, I had less and less freedom in what I did and how I did it. The company wasn’t going to change, so it was clear that I had to.

So now I’m going to be my own boss. I’ll find the clients and I’ll do the work. I’ll make the decisions and I’ll pay the bills. I’ll fix the printer and I’ll make the tea. If I have an idea that I want to try out, then I can do it there and then. If a decision needs to be made, then I can make it without consulting with anyone else first. And if it all goes terribly wrong, then I’ll only have myself to blame. The buck truly does stop here.

So here I am. Standing on the brink of possibly my most daring venture to date. Leaving the swish office and IT support for the kitchen table and a laptop. Trading the certainty of a salaried job for the excitement and anxiety of being my own boss. And with a massive grin on my face.

The two body problem

There’s a thing in physics called the ‘two body problem’. It’s about predicting the behaviour of two particles (or stars or billiard balls or anything else) when they interact only with each other under the influence of external forces. And, in physics at least, this particular problem can be solved exactly.

In real life, however, things are not so simple. Like many couples, my wife Natalie and I both work – she’s a university academic and I’m a business consultant and writer. And because Natalie’s work is on a fixed-term contract basis, every once in a while her contract comes to an end and she needs to find a new job. Now is one of those times.

Green 'for sale' sign

There's more to relocation than just a job change (Image: Diana Parkhouse)

In the past, my work has been quite flexible, so we’ve been able to move around the country quite easily to wherever her new job happens to be. Which has been fine. But now at least part of my work is specific to where we live now. We’ve both made friends and generally put down some tentative roots. And we’ve bought a house and spent ages getting it and the garden just how we want it. In short, neither of us really wants to up sticks and move somewhere else.

I’m sure it’s not just Natalie and I who are grappling with this dilemma. Any couple must face the same problem of what to do when one half needs to move somewhere else. Do you stay where you are and see if something else comes up? Do you go and hope your other half can find a job too? Or does one person go and the other stay?

And how are we supposed to balance this need for flexibility, so beloved of government and employers alike, with a desire to form links with our neighbours and our communities? How are we supposed to set down roots when we’re always on the move? I know a few people around here who have never lived more than a few miles from where they were born. And while I mock them shamelessly, I can’t help but feel a little jealous, too.

So what’s the answer? To be honest, I’m not sure. But I do know that the household where both adults work is now pretty much the norm. And I know that none of us has a job for life any more. The two body problem, it would appear, is here to stay.