A group of three impassioned friends, all under the age of 30, started Boulder Food Rescue in August of 2011 with the goal of introducing the problems of waste and want to one another, and with the help of a little logistical muddling on our part, letting them solve each other.
It’s a shocking fact that 40% of all food produced in the US goes to waste at some point in production. The EPA estimates that every grocery store in the country generates about 1 ton of waste per day, which doesn’t even touch waste in the field or in transport. This (almost inconceivably) occurs at the same time at 1 in 6 Americans are considered “food insecure” and do not have access to adequate and reliable nutrition.
We set about addressing this lunacy in our own community of Boulder, CO by starting an organization that picks up food, primarily fresh fruits and veggies, from local grocers and transports it by bike to 50 agencies that serve hungry, homeless, and low income folks in Boulder. We use 90% bicycle transportation because our food system is incredibly energy intensive, and it makes no sense to put more fossil fuels into trying to rescue food that slips though the cracks.
Over the past 20 months, Boulder Food Rescue has amassed a volunteer base of 150, saved nearly 325,000 lbs of fresh, healthy food, and is in the process of becoming a national non-profit. This last point has been our focus over the past several months as we began to export our bike powered food rescue model to 5 different cities. Due to some national press coverage, we had people from 25 different cities around the globe from Dublin to San Francisco contact us to ask for support in rescuing food.
In March, with the help of a Shareable seed grant, we decided focus our work to replicate the program on an inspiring group of people in Fort Collins, Colorado. An already close knit group of friends and community members came to us and asked for some help establishing a food rescue organization with bikes in Fort Collins, which is just an hour and a half by car from Boulder. This initial ask was followed by meetings and long email chains and countless hours of community-based research. We became a primary resource for them, and in our weekly correspondence answered questions about how to best approach community partners, access non-profit status, and recruit volunteers.
We also wrote and produced bound copies of the “BFR Package Deal,” a step-by-step guide to starting a food rescue, which proved to be invaluable to them as they could refer to it for local and national resources, and feel a greater degree of independence. We encourage lots of inquiry and communication with organizations that were already working with food in Fort Collins. This led to many conversations with the local food bank, gleaning project, food coop and network of community gardens about the role a potential food rescue would fill in their operations. Once the organizers were confident that a bike-powered food rescue was timely and appropriate for Fort Collins, we together set about creating the beginnings of an organization; bylaws, a board of directors, and a mission statement. One Fort Collins organizer said of this initial stage, “It is a genuinely beautiful act of strength to get something like this going and I can’t wait to be a part of this beginning.”
The Fort Collins Food Rescue crew was filled with enthusiasm and energy, but had the same problem we did at our inception: the issue of how to become a nonprofit since the project relies on tax deductible donations. We at Boulder Food Rescue were working hard to become nationally tax exempt so that we might extend out 501c3 status to Fort Collins and several other cities, but had run into frustrating road blocks internally and with the IRS.
In a display of resourcefulness, one of the Fort Collins organizers, Dana Guber, suggested that food rescue in Fort Collins be housed under the nonprofit status of the Growing Project, a local organization that promotes the value of a strong, diverse and just local food system for all residents of Northern Colorado through direct agricultural experiences, education, and advocacy. The group carefully weighed their options, and decided that the best way to serve their community and rescue food was to become a project of the Growing Project. They adopted the name Food Finders and completed their first pick up by bicycle last week, which was a whole bunch of fresh, healthy greens!
The past few months have been an intense learning process for both Boulder Food Rescue and the newly christened Food Finders. We learned to be an incubator for a fledgling organization, and help them create a vision for the future. We have gained a greater understanding that federal paperwork doesn’t happen on our schedule and learned how we can balance sharing our model and providing support with granting full autonomy to the people who use it.
The folks in Fort Collins have learned a great deal about patience and persistence in starting a new project, and have experienced sweet success as a result of their work. A Fort Collins organizer reflected: “We are capable of preventing food waste and, more universally, spreading knowledge to strengthen the community. Being a part of Fort Collins Food Rescue has given me an empowerment that I don’t feel is leaving any time soon.”
Yesterday morning San Francisco’s Mayor Edwin Lee announced an unprecedented new partnership between the city’s Department of Emergency Management (DEM) and BayShare, a sharing economy advocacy group in the San Francisco Bay Area whose mission is to make the Bay Area the best place on the planet for sharing. BayShare was officially launched with this partnership.
Milicent Johnson, who co-founded BayShare last year with Jesse Biroscak during her work as Shareable’s Community Manager, shared the podium with Mayor Lee and others to explain the partnership. Its underlying goal is to harness the power of sharing to ensure the best response to future disasters in San Francisco: think Lyft drivers transporting maintenance personnel to priority areas, Yerdle users offering basic supplies to those in need neighborhood by neighborhood, and Airbnb enabling hosts to provide free accommodation to displaced people. The partnership is the first public initiative of Mayor Lee’s Sharing Economy Working Group, which Shareable helped the city launch last year.
The partnership launch event kicked off with an open brainstorm facilitated by IDEO's Alex Grishaver and Kate Lydon between representatives from sharing businesses; the city’s established emergency management community which includes San Francisco’s Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT), the Interfaith Council, the Tenderloin Hunger Task Force, and the American Red Cross Bay Area; and representatives from DEM. Shareable staff were active participants in the discussion, including Shareable’s co-founder Neal Gorenflo who, along with others, stressed the importance of pre-existing social connectedness at the neighborhood level to effective disaster response.
After introductions, DEM’s Alicia Johnson presented the city’s new SF72 portal with a touching video, elegant new logo, and a bold new strategy. SF72 is an initiative designed to prepare for the crucial first days after a serious disaster, and will serve as the ‘go to’ portal for support in the event of such an emergency. SF72 is clearly aligned with the aims of the sharing economy, stating that beyond stockpiling supplies, weathering a disaster is “about knowing your neighbors, lending a hand, and sharing your knowledge.”
In discussion, various opportunities for BayShare companies to work with the city on disaster response were discussed, but this was only the start of the conversation, as the Mayor has offered BayShare a seat on the city’s Disaster Council. But this was more than just a ‘love-in’ as the participants tackled head on the challenges of interoperability, trust, availability, and inequality of access. One memorable comment shared the concern that forgotten passwords could be the most frustrating barrier to accessing resources after a disaster.
Airbnb’s co-founder and CTO, Nathan Blecharczyk, was there to showcase his company’s latest product, a ‘disaster response mode’ deployable within 30 minutes which provides a single landing page for those offering free accommodation to those displaced from their homes, and enables hosts to list their rooms at $0 and waives all Airbnb’s fees. This initiative grew from the company’s ad hoc response to Hurricane Sandy which hit the US East Coast in October 2012. In a statement, Blecharczyk said that “the amazing outpouring of generosity from our community inspired us to build this tool...we now have the infrastructure in place to help at a moment’s notice.”
During Hurricane Sandy, Airbnb, with the help of their users and the city of New York, were able to shelter 1,400 displaced people. They hope the new tool will enable them to help more people at a faster pace in future disasters.
Participants were keen to leverage the potential benefits of sharing for small-scale disasters too. As one of the participants commented, if you lose your home in a small local fire, that is your Hurricane Sandy. It was widely agreed that working to entrench sharing behaviors could only benefit those who fall victim to a disaster, no matter how big or small.
Mayor Lee, the President of the Board of Supervisors David Chiu, and DEM’s Executive Director Anne Kronenberg all addressed the gathering, and pledged their support for the DEM / BayShare partnership. These are exciting times for the relationship between government and sharing organizations: let’s hope that this partnership lays a foundation for further collaboration and inspires other cities to take similar steps.
If you have not yet read Part I: Is Gold at a Turning Point?, available free to all readers, please read it first.Executive Summary
- Large players (and likely price manipulators) now have incentive for precious metals prices to rise
- Investor demand for bullion remains at record highs
- Competition for bullion from the East continues to heat up
- Central banks buy more bullion as Comex inventories deplete
- The key signs to know when it will be time to sell your gold & silver
Much has been written across the Web (including here at PeakProsperity.com) about whether or not the precious metals markets are manipulated in price by big players (major multi-national banks such as JP Morgan). Without delving into the many arguments on both the pro and con sides, Chris and I are of the opinion that sufficient data exists to convince a reasonable observer that price manipulation in the PM markets is indeed real, or, at the very least, highly probable. (For those remaining doubters out there, have a look at the evidence here, here, and here, and let us know if you have a rational, non-manipulative explanation.)
One of the most glaring signs of likely manipulation has been the massive short positions that a small number of large banks (JP Morgan being the most prominent among them) have held for many years, particularly in the silver market [measure positions as % of world silver production]. And not only were these unlimited positions allowed, but this cabal of banks was allowed to naked-sell PMs short (i.e., sell metal without actually owning it first). On the other side of the coin, the long side, position limits were enforced, and there was no similar ability to buy more metal than one could pay for. This imbalance of rules certainly provides the mechanism by which PM prices could be artificially jockeyed more easily to the downside. In this context, a decline from the high $40s to the low $20s looks more understandable.
Well, a very important part of this story has just shifted. The CFTC (Commodities Futures Trading Commission) publishes a monthly report illustrating the positions taken in Comex Futures Contracts
After nearly ten years of being net short in Comex gold futures, U.S. banks have been recently decreasing those short positions, and – for the first time since 2004 (with the exception of a single month in 2008) – they have flipped to become net long gold in May (see bottom chart below)...
There's no way to sugarcoat the dismal performance of the precious metals in recent months. But a revisitation of the reasons for owning them reveals no cracks in the underlying thesis for doing so.
In fact, there are a number of new compelling developments arguing that the long heartbreak for gold and silver holders will soon be over.
The fact that America needs radical change is as clear today as the path to that change is difficult to envision. For political economist Gar Alperovitz, these dual problems inform his new book, What Then Must We Do?, which attempts to outline the potential strategies and tactics that could, in fact, perform that change.
The book’s premises are solid and hard to disagree with: that traditional politics, both in terms of voting, labor disputes, and more basic styles of activism—methods that brought most of the progress in the United States through the 20th century—will not work as much as we need them to moving forward. Both regulatory capture and corruption of the government, combined with a neo-liberal consensus about globalization, lower wages and smashing the labor movement, mean that the tried and true methods of progressive change in this country no longer work. But something’s got to give.
For taking on such heavy material, Alperovitz keeps his tone light, simple and chatty. This style often sacrifices nuance, but it also makes his more radical proposals seem eminently reasonable. For Alperovitz, the way forward can be traced through the movement towards democracy (defined as decision making control over our lives, our cities and our workplaces, not just voting). For him, then, the most promising things that have emerged in the last decades are cooperatives, worker owned business and ESOPs, B-corporations and land trusts, etc., along with certain forms of local government ownership and management, such as public banks, sustainability planning, and direct municipal and state investment strategies.
He gives a wealth of different examples of these small-d democratic projects, and for anyone interested in the solidarity economy in America, the early chapters are an excellent resource on a number of different projects. He goes through example after example of powerful new models of worker control and, more importantly for him, worker ownership of companies.
Alperovitz points out that worker-controlled businesses do better, are more competitive and more efficient than traditional hierarchical companies at doing the same job. As things get worse, he argues, companies will look to these examples and build on them, using them as templates for action. His favorite example is what he calls the “Cleveland Model”, based on a series of cooperatives and government programs in Cleveland which show a way that public policy and worker control could democratize local economies. The cumulative effect of all these examples is to make them seem not radical, but normal.
Which is exactly Alperovitz’s intention, and his hope, because he believes that, slowly and over time, democratically controlled and owned workplaces, along with more economically responsible local governments, could become the norm. This is ultimately his answer to the title’s question.
Alperovitz lays out four tactics which he believes, when combined together into a long-term strategy, could lay the groundwork for a stronger and more democratic economy. The tactics he describes are: “Evolutionary reconstruction”, which is the widespread development of more democratic economic forms like coops, land trusts and social enterprises; “Checkerboard municipal and state development”, which involves the development of public banks, utilities, land ownership, etc.; “Crisis transformations”, which he describes as crisis driven initiatives to break the power of banks and reform the health industry; and “Big crisis transformations” which would involve the nationalization of major companies (as, he points out, we briefly saw with AIG and GM).
While I agree that all these things together would produce broader social justice and a more democratic society, I’m not sure about the feasibility of the last two points on his roadmap. There’s no reason to believe that crisis will produce progressive policy—as he himself points out, the history of major economic crisis in Europe is also the history of authoritarianism—and this analysis also seems to miss the point that Alperovitz has made earlier: that the big corporations have effectively captured the federal government. If they have done so, how will the government successfully oppose their will and nationalize? Why will Obamacare give way to single payer healthcare? If traditional politics wont work, why will “crisis” make this happen?
He’s no teleologist, he doesn’t argue that the world he describes will necessarily come about, not by any stretch. And he doesn’t say that the insufficiency of traditional politics means people should stop practicing them, in fact he says the opposite. But he also doesn’t describe the sort of social force that will make these changes possible, nor what role the reader could have in making these changes. While he argues that the age of leftist counter-power (on the part of social movements or labor) in large-scale policy-making is over, and I tend to agree, he fails to name what exactly will make the government of the rich for the rich change its tune. He says that as things get worse the government will have to try new policies, and it might, but there’s also no reason to expect that the government won't just continue to bail out the rich at the expense of an increasingly immiserated population.
These are all direly important questions, because Alperovitz’ strategy asks us to take a long view—this process will take decades. But what of the people suffering now, the millions in prisons, the millions out of work more and less permanently? It’s a big gamble to make on governmental good will. What Then Must We Do? features a thorough diagnosis of the problems facing the American economy, and is an excellent primer on the powerful ways that democratic ownership and management are changing businesses and government in real ways across the country. If it fails to fully answer its own question, it at least gives a powerful and serious look at alternative ways to imagine our society. In the end, we will need many more people imagining a new society if we hope to build one—to that goal, this book might just be a catalyst.
"Study without action is futile; Action without study is fatal." -- Mary Beard
The other day, I got into my car, set off, and realized I was going the wrong direction. It was my usual direction, but it was wrong. What happened? It was habit.
Unfortunately, we live our lives this way. So much of what we do is because it’s routine; it’s normal. We’ve become consumers because that’s what’s “normal.” When we need something, we go out and buy it. We haven’t learned any other way to live. But we know that the well-being of people and the planet won’t allow us to continue this way. How do we break out of the consumer life style?
For many of us, the sharing movement is a positive alternative. By sharing our stuff, we reduce our consumerism.
But how do we create an actual sharing society? How do we move away from a cutthroat, irresponsible culture where we consume without thinking? We can begin to live more consciously by building reflection into our lives in the form of a “sharing conversation circle.”
Conversation circles can be formed by any groups of people. Photo credit: Laurelville Mennonite Church Center. Used under Creative Commons license.
The circle is a way to stop and take stock, think more deeply. We need to begin to consciously choose our direction instead of living by rote. In a sharing conversation circle, people come together to talk and think about sharing so that, ultimately, it changes the way they think about life. People need to realize that sharing is about much more than just exchanging stuff; it is a reorientation of the way we live. We are creating a new culture in which we consciously think about acting together instead of alone — a culture in which we understand that our own well-being is linked to the common good.
Ultimately, the sharing conversations will help build a movement because it involves the most basic aspect of sharing: sharing our selves — our thoughts, our emotions, our ideas. In a sharing circle, we build social ties, gain self-understanding, analyze society, and make plans for action.
Anyone can do it. No training necessary. Here’s how:
Form a small group in which you discuss your experiences with sharing, talk about the larger cultural forces, and make plans for more sharing. At the same time, read the articles on Shareable.net, watching for ideas that give you insight into your experiences with sharing.
There are three characteristics of the circle:
Sharing involves the Small Group as Community: Groups should allow people to form community by giving them a chance to talk freely and be themselves. Therefore, groups shouldn’t be larger than four to six. If a group is too large, people don’t get time to talk, and it’s harder to share our more personal experiences — making it hard to create community. And creating community is crucial because it gives us support as we bring about change.
Sharing involves Conversation, not Discussion: Groups should be convivial conversations, not competitive debates. You’re sharing ideas, not trying to win a game! Actually, conversation is sharing at its most basic. It’s a give and take, not a hostile takeover! You share your worries, your enthusiasms, your self. You don’t bludgeon each other with facts as we do in school! When, instead of conversations, we have debates or discussions, we put on our public persona and fail to truly connect. Instead of conversing in a personal, congenial manner, we compete and put up barriers. Conversation should be a barn raising, not a battle.
Circles involve Shareable as text: There’s so much going on in the movement as reflected in the articles on Shareable. We need to use these articles to understand our own ideas better. We connect our own insights with the ideas in the articles. When we read and talk about Shareable.net on a regular basis, our insights about our experiences deepen. Finish up each meeting commenting on any new ideas you’ve found on Shareable.
Sharing Conversations are built around three questions — questions that allow you to share your experience, share your ideas, and share in plans for action:
When in your life have you experienced sharing? (Or, in subsequent sessions, what have you tried lately?)
What forces in our culture make it difficult to share in this way?
What actions can I take to share more effectively?
Groups can be only a few people interested in sharing conversations on sharing. Photo credit: Jones Library. Used under Creative Commons license.
Let’s look at why these questions are important.
Question number one: “When in your life have you experienced sharing?” This is about the examined life. We must not only learn from books, but from our lives.
Too often we just explore ideas without looking at our own experience, making it difficult to live consciously. To create change for ourselves and society, we must begin to make conscious choices that emerge from our experience. So, the first question helps you understand your own experience, letting you root your values in real experiences instead of second-hand ideas.
Question number two: “What are the forces in our culture that undermine sharing?” This question takes us beyond individualism. Too often we blame conditions on the individual, failing to look at the cultural forces. We need to analyze the larger society, explore the new ideas and movements for social change. Thus, we move from sharing our feelings to sharing our ideas.
Question number three: “What actions can I take to share more?” This question lays the basis for collaborative living and thinking. We move from feeling and thinking to acting. We don’t really change unless we act on our ideas. We can learn how to plan together — to plan in a cooperative, collaborative way. It’s brainstorming at its best with everyone pitching in to help each person develop plans that will work — both long-term and short-term, political as well as personal. And we return each meeting to share our experiences with each other.
So, if you’re in a larger group — maybe a church group, a Meetup, a sustainability group, or just a group exploring the idea of sharing, start a conversation circle! You can keep coming back to these three questions, going deeper each time. Each time, exploring with others the actions you have taken.
Though an age-old practice, sharing can feel new and exciting! We need to think about it deeply and clearly, and begin to understand how it can create a nourishing, sustainable culture. But, to do this, we need to truly share our insights, ideas, and our selves.
Let’s take seriously Margaret Mead’s words: “Never doubt the ability of a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens to change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
For help on forming a group, get in touch with me at email@example.com.
- California tops list of states with water infrastructure needs
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- Cost of insuring emerging market debt soars on fears Fed will taper
Twitter / DEEPKENYA: #Kenya now Has a new Currency ...
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At some point in your weekly excursion to the grocery store or natural food market, you may have come across a product in the veggie aisle that looked a lot like someone had cut a big chunk out of your front lawn – a big chunk of grass in a little plastic container. You might have thought, Why are they selling rabbit food here? If so, let me be the first person to introduce you to the highly beneficial and healthy food (for humans) called wheatgrass.
As a recent graduate and young community leader, I have been focusing my efforts on expanding community relationships and promoting sharing networks, particularly through cooperative living. So the idea for the Boulder Sharing Economy Summit naturally came up during discussions at the Boulder Housing Coalition (BHC), which I am board member of.
BHC is a non-profit dedicated to developing low-income/affordable community cooperatives. It owns three houses with a total of about 50 bedrooms. We strive for inclusivity as part of our housing model and we give tenants of our houses full rights to alter the space they live in using a consensus based model. BHC wanted to connect to organizations, businesses and individuals with aligned goals and aspirations, so we decided to do a sharing economy summit to draw attention to some political issues such as zoning, and to develop an umbrella organization to help facilitate collaboration in the sharing economy in Boulder.
The Boulder Sharing Economy Summit was held on May 30, 2013 at the HUB in Boulder. We were lucky to receive funds from Shareable's seed grant program and BHC, as well as donations from the HUB, Boulder Food Rescue and Twisted Pine Brewing. As guests entered the summit, they signed up their organizations and business to be put in the sharing economy directory and map. Five speakers from local organizations spoke about the sharing economy in Boulder and Ashley Satorius from the board of the Solidarity Economy Network gave insight into the sharing economy as a global movement.
We had a mix of networking, short presentations and breakout groups all with the focus of unifying our efforts and sharing our successes and failures within the sharing economy. The event attracted about 120 people, the majority of the demographic was individuals who were heavily involved in Boulder’s sharing economy but also some students and members of the public who were just interested or wanted to get more involved.
A lot of attendees made strong connections. I overheard conversations between the director of our local bicycle cooperative and the owner of eGo Car Share talking about mutual goals of less cars and more bike paths in Boulder. I heard an individual from the Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (SPAN) talking about reaching out to more youths, doing more promotion in Spanish and promoting more in places that may be more inclusive. The speaker from the Urban Land Institute did a great job of getting people excited and organized about changing zoning laws in Boulder.
We had a follow up sharing economy breakfast at Fuse, another coworking space in Boulde, and we plan to have monthly meetups to discuss future work with the sharing economy and hope to continue collaborating with each other. Another great outcome of the event is our website and sharing economy map which can be found at Bouldersharingeconomy.com. I will continuously update them with submissions to our directory and interesting local sharing economy news. Please join the BHC Facebook group if you'd like to get involved, come to our meetups, or just keep updated on how Boulder is progressing. And let us know what's happening in your town!
Some great ideas and uses for the lemons sitting in your fruit basket. Stock up and keep them on hand.
Author Antonio Tricarico (Italy) is an engineer, campaigner, analyst and editor. He works for Re: Common, formerly the Campaign to Reform the World Bank (CRBM), in Rome, on international financial institutions, financial markets regulation and financial glob- alization related issues. He has co-authored several publications on IFI-related issues, the most recent being, “La Banca dei Ricchi,” and has been correspondent for the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto at several international summits.
Financial speculation in food commodities has become one of the main drivers of food price volatility, with devastating impacts on small producers and the poor. Yet the disruptive influence of financial speculation on food markets is only a preview of future crises. International financial markets are now attempting to dominate many conventional markets as a long-term strategy to extract greater profits and accumulate capital. While governments have been discussing the issue in the context of the G20’s focus on food security,1 their responses have been insufficient and contradictory so far and do not begin to address speculation in other hard commodities, where prices are even more volatile and the impacts on energy-dependent countries are equally severe.
The systematic financial speculation on commodities (and its systemically influential increase in recent years) has been driven mainly by deregulation of derivative markets. Derivatives markets, which trade in futures contracts and options, among other financial instruments based on other assets, enable the price risks for an asset (wheat, oil, pork bellies) to be transferred from the producer to other parties, often speculators, through the sale of “derivative” financial instruments. Speculation has also soared as investment banks, hedge funds and other institutional investors have jumped into the derivative market, often introducing new financial instruments such as index funds and exchange-traded funds.
All of these trends have been accelerated by financial deregulation, which over the last decade, for the first time in history, has transformed commodities into financial assets. Until the beginning of the 2000’s, holding a ton of corn could not produce a revenue stream or rent, other then from sales based on market prices. Today, thanks to financial engineering, such financial schemes are not only possible, they are highly lucrative. The largely unregulated commodity derivatives markets have resulted in greater speculation on food commodities, which can cause high prices and shortages, particularly in poorer countries. Such “financial innovation” is part of a broader trend that is structurally transforming the global economy and natural resources management.
Being a maker society rather than a speculative one is the only true path to wealth. Photo credit: Library of Congress. Used under Creative Commons license.
Contrary to common sense and what civil society often assumes, financial markets are penetrating deeper and deeper into the “real economy” of actual production. Speculative finance is increasingly influencing prices and thus productive output in agriculture and energy as well as natural resource commons that have historically functioned outside of markets. The result: speculative capital is becoming structurally intertwined with productive capital, including the commons as productive realms. This expansion of (finance) capital represents a new historic type of enclosure: investor-driven appropriations and control of many forests, fisheries, arable land, and water resources historically managed as commons.
The 2007-2008 crash of financial markets and the global economy, coupled with investors’ need to diversify investments beyond traditional markets (including equity, bonds and real estate), has intensified the search for new ways to achieve high rates of return, cover heavy losses that some institutional investors experienced during the crisis, and absorb the massive liquidity of capital that exists globally. These needs have propelled the development and even the creation of new types of financial market risks. But in so doing, financial market operators are reformulating the fundamentals of the real economy where everyday production and consumption occur. A massive financial transformation is underway as financial entrepreneurs create new tradable asset classes out of existing commodities, which provide a physical source of value to support new structured financial instruments.
The new financial assets are being created from existing commodities. And where markets do not yet exist, natural resources are being converted into commodities so they can be traded. Indeed, new commodities and markets are being created from scratch to satisfy the demands by financial markets for new, high-return investments
A very good example of this kind of “Rumpelstiltskin capitalism” – the making of something valuable from nothing, like spinning straw into gold – is the carbon market. These markets trade the right to emit carbon, as authorized by state-issued permits of such rights. Carbon-trading rights are also generated by companies through the implementation of projects aimed to reduce emissions in the future and thus to offset real emissions that the same companies are generating today. A carbon credit or certificate is in itself a derivative contract, given that its value is based on the estimated future price of abating carbon emissions. Therefore holding or buying a carbon credit is in itself a bet about the future, something quite different from holding stock in a ton of corn. These rights to emit – or credits and certificates – are then resold on a secondary market, otherwise known as “emission trading.” Derivative financial products are built on the rights, credits, and certificates, as in the case of other commodities. In this case, as with other commodities, speculative investors are simply trading financial risks associated with the carbon commodity – which itself is highly unstable and virtual.
HOW ARE FINANCIALIZATION AND NATURAL RESOURCES CONNECTED?
We live in a time of finance capitalism, where trading money, risk and associated products is more profitable than production itself, and often accumulates greater capital than trading goods and services. This has huge implications for where capital is invested and the everyday impact that capital markets have on people, as more and more aspects of everyday life – from home ownership to pensions to schooling – are mediated through financial markets (rather than conventional markets alone). This is what people mean when they talk about the “financialization” of the economy.
Financialization should be regarded as more than just a further stage of commodification. Financialization reduces all value that is exchanged (whether tangible, intangible, future or present promises, etc.) into either a financial instrument or a derivative of a financial instrument. Financialization seeks to reduce any work, product or service to an exchangeable financial instrument like currency, and thus make it easier for people to trade (and profit from) these financial instruments. A mortgage loan, for example, is a financial instrument that lets an employee trade a promise of future wages for ownership of a home. Financialization aims to transform labor, goods and services into tradable financial products as we know it from currency trade.
Technological advances must keep pace with energy consumption. Photo credit: Future Challenges. Used under Creative Commons license.
With financialization increasingly penetrating into the real economy, financial markets, financial institutions and financial elites are gaining greater influence over basic economic policies and economic outcomes. Financialization transforms the functioning of economic systems at both the macro and micro levels of the economy in three distinct ways: 1) It changes the structure and operation of financial markets; 2) It changes the behavior of non-financial corporations (whose profits are more and more generated through financial markets than through actual production); and 3) It changes the priorities of economic policy.
Financialization is now reaching into all commodity markets and transforming their basic functioning. Just as the first wave of financialization focused on privatizing public services such as pensions, health care, education and housing systems (in the quest for better returns on investment), so the new wave of financialization seeks to commodify natural resources. In many instances, this leads to enclosures of the commons, which in turn affects both resourceexploitation as well as resource conservation projects.
At the same time, growing global competition for the control and management of natural resources worldwide is intensifying pressures on national economies to exploit natural resources, resulting in what Michael T. Klare calls “resource wars” (Klare 2002). This is not simply a matter of rapid industrialization and emerging economies fueling greater global consumption and competition for limited resources. Resource wars are symptoms of new geopolitical and geoeconomic dynamics. The control of natural resources flows is increasingly seen as a key strategic tool for directing futures markets, political relations and economic supremacy.2
This trend is quite evident in recent large-scale land acquisitions at an international level by governments and the private sector. Their aim often goes beyond just securing future crop production for their own populations; they want to secure long-term, highly profitable positions in foreign markets to enable them to acquire and process natural resources as well as diversify their investments.3 In this context, advanced economies, particularly those reeling from the economic crisis, want to expand capital markets in other countries in order to establish a new private financial infrastructure that can generate enough financial resources to develop these new infrastructure investments. Financial markets awash in liquidity are desperate for such new investment vehicles: At the end of 2010, global capital markets were trading more than $200 trillion, which is almost four times more than the world’s GDP, according to the McKinsey Global Institute (McKinsey, 2011).
The emerging “turbo-capitalism” driven by financialization seeks to address two pressing problems now facing investors: how to invest the massive amounts of private wealth and liquidity present today in capital markets, and at the same time how to create new financial instruments that will generate additional revenues for the financial industry.
Developed markets currently account for $30 trillion of the estimated total $43 trillion of global equity market capitalization, according to a recent estimate by Timothy Moe, chief Asia-Pacific strategist at Goldman Sachs. Over the next 20 years, global market capitalization could expand to some $145 trillion, he predicted.4 Looking only at private wealth not channelled through institutional investors, private equity funds managed $2.5 trillion at the end of 2008 (a 15 percent increase compared to 2007, despite the financial turmoil). International Financial Services London forecasts that funds under management will increase to over $3.5 trillion dollars by 2015, starting from less than $1 trillion in 2003.5 More and more private equity funds will focus on emerging economies. Global hedge-fund assets surpassed the $2 trillion mark for the first time ever, Hedge Fund Research Inc. said in April 2011, marking an impressive industry rebound from market losses and customer flight during the financial crisis.6
This new stage of financialization will provide new economic and legal leverage for the further commodification of nature and the commons in general. More and more natural resources will be extracted and commercialized, unleashing a new massive attack on the global and local environment and the common wealth.
Capital markets regard this approach as a vital long-term strategy to secure and lock in a new structure of control over natural resources that assures attractive profits. But this finance-driven structure will also dramatically reduce the ability of communities to reclaim their shared wealth and assert their collective, locally responsive management. This systemic goal of “financial enclosure” of the commons, when coupled with existing trade and investment agreements,7 could produce a long lasting, legally durable enclosure that would seriously diminish (policy) space for any political player and for social movements – farmers, Transition Towns, Occupy Wall Street, and others. Most importantly, it threatens to extinguish the possibility of people reproducing their livelihoods independent of the overwhelming influence of financial markets.
COMMODITY SPECULATION, INFRASTRUCTURE FINANCING AND THE INVENTION OF NEW MARKETS
FOOD, LAND, AND AGRICULTURE
After the first food crisis, financial speculators such as hedge funds managers acquired strong positions in markets for physical food commodities, most importantly rice, corn and wheat. In 2010, hedge funds dominated 24 percent of the maize market, enjoying the commodity’s 34 percent price rally. Hedge funds have also increased their control of the soya bean market by 19 percent, up from 13 percent in 2009. These infusions of finance capital have affected the customary functioning of these markets by enabling large players to engage in market abuses and manipulations that make food prices more volatile. Worse, major trading companies in physical markets, such as Cargill, ADM, BUNGE and Glencore, which already play monopoly roles in several cases, are becoming more and more financialized. This means that they generate most of their profits through financial activities instead of through production for physical commodity markets.
Natural resources, including arable land, are a finite supply. Photo credit: a4gpa. Used under Creative Commons license.
Hedge funds, private equity funds and other investors play a central role in large-scale land acquisition, through international speculative investments. This explains why land in most cases is not put immediately into production. Instead, it is used as a vehicle to hedge against inflation or other investments in the same countries; as a way to enter those countries’ markets or as simple short-term speculation in land as a financial asset. New investments in agriculture fostered today by international financial institutions must also be seen as investments in the future financialization of the economy. They aim at deepening financial markets in developing countries (or even building them, where they do not currently exist) by making small farmers and consumers more dependent on debt and retail financial markets. For example, financial institutions wish to encourage farmers to cope with food price volatility by financially hedging their risks, or by buying food commodity futures, weather derivatives and the like.
OIL, ELECTRICITY, AND RENEWABLE ENERGY
Ever since oil became a highly financialized commodity in the late Eighties, the price of oil has structurally influenced most economic processes in fossil fuel-addicted societies. The volatility of the price of oil is thereby transferred to other commodities, including food, with severe impacts on other economic sectors and consumers. This process occurs not only through the workings of the “real economy” (as oil prices are incorporated into retail prices), but also through the operations of index funds and other pools of speculative investments.
It is important to remember that major energy companies, such as General Electric and energy trading companies such as Enron, have been highly “financialized” since the Nineties. Their involvement in financial markets and high-risk speculative strategies have led to bankruptcy, as in the case of Enron’s infamous speculation (and price manipulations) in the price of electricity. Similarly, today’s major energy traders are investment banks and hedge funds – namely JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and the RAB Energy hedge fund – that control oil productions and stocks directly or indirectly through participation into energy companies, energy service companies and traders (stocks, options and other financial instruments).
Because of this extreme financialization, any policy strategies to inaugurate a “Green New Deal” that focuses on trying to shift patterns in energy consumption and production will not succeed if it does not contain at its core highly financialized features. This risk should not be underestimated. For example, private equity funds in India, both domestic and foreign, have played a key role in listing renewable companies on the stock market through IPOs (initial public offerings, in which stock is first sold to the public). The fact that these offers became significantly over-subscribed increased the value of the companies to the benefit of short-term speculators. Similarly, several exchange-traded funds have stakes in green technology companies, which has helped to raise their profiles among short-term, speculative investors. The financialization of green technologies means that decisions about future energy developments and projects are increasingly directed by short-sighted, profit-maximizing financial speculators biased toward resource extraction.
METALS AND OTHER HARD COMMODITIES
As for other hard commodities – coal, metals and non-metals – mining has already seen a strong influx of speculative capital over the last decade. Hedge funds have been playing a major role in financing mining projects and companies, including coal. Today many of the most significant mining multinationals systemically use derivative-based trading. The recent scam of transfer mispricing involving Glencore and its Mopani copper mine in Zambia8 is quite telling: the company used option derivatives to lock in copper sales to a Zug-based subsidiary – Zug is a well known tax haven within Switzerland – at below market prices and then the subsidiary was selling at market prices.
It is also telling that major investment banks like BNP Paribas are developing “structured commodity finance” as a new field of operation. This novel approach uses the full panoply of financial engineering based on securitization and derivatives to finance large-scale resource-extraction projects and companies. But unlike traditional project financing schemes that simply securitize the expected cash flows, structured commodity finance aims to securitizethe expected future physical output of the project or company by issuing securities that are then tradable on financial markets. Such financial instruments would necessarily lead a variety of investors to intensify pressures on resource extraction, disempowering communities who wish to have some say in how their natural resources are managed.
WATER AND INFRASTRUCTURE
In July 2011 the chief economist of Citigroup, Willem Buiter, stated in one of the company’s regular thematic research briefings: “I expect to see a globally integrated market for fresh water within 25 to 30 years. Once the spot markets for water are integrated, futures markets and other derivative water-based financial instruments ... will follow. There will be different grades and types of fresh water, just the way we have light sweet and heavy sour crude oil today. Water as an asset class will, in my view, become eventually the single most important physical-commodity based asset class, dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities and precious metals.”9 This vision goes far beyond the current privatization of water services and utilities; it would require a significant increase in the production of fresh water (desalinization, purification) as well as the storage, shipping and transportation of water through a network of new dams and large-scale canal systems interconnecting different water basins. In short, water itself would become a financial asset, so that holding a physical quantity of water would generate a financial rent. (Ecological considerations of the flows and location of water would be considered secondary or irrelevant.)
Building new water supply infrastructure would have its own powerful appeal to financial markets because it would require a massive mobilization of capital to build it – once again helping sop up the huge supplies of capital on global markets searching for profitable investments. Here again, a highly financialized approach will be followed in building water infrastructure, as today is happening with private equity infrastructure funds.
Specific attention should be paid to the toll that financialization has taken on water companies. The much-touted public-private partnerships have been significant failures, yet the many privatized water companies – i.e., Obras Sanitarias de la Nacion in Argentina, water supplies in Metro Manila in the Philippines, water utilities in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania – are short of financing and not producing profits. But it is becoming harder and harder to reclaim these companies to serve the public good, and eventually convert their capital base into publicly held or commons-based assets, because financial markets have promoted sophisticated bond issuances that have produced crushing indebtedness.
Clean, fresh water should not be commodified. Photo credit: Diego Cambiaso. Used under Creative Commons license.
CARBON, FOREST, AND NEW MARKETS COMMODIFYING NATURE
Carbon markets deserve specific attention because they can be seen as a deliberate experiment to try to build a new commodity, from whose trading financial assets and a financial market can then emerge. Today carbon markets are unable to function well primarily because of the virtuality of the asset that is being traded as well as the absence of reliable mechanisms for pricing carbon. These new markets are a clear example of how a new commodity could be created on the basis of market-based environmental and financial regulations: a commodity that itself is a derivative – a bet on avoiding projected carbon emissions against a disputable baseline.
With the inclusion of REDD credits into carbon markets,10 forests too will be financialized in the name of the fight against climate change.11 This could well hurt people’s livelihoods, particularly those of indigenous people living in forest areas. Similarly today there are proposals in the UK and US for establishing markets for trading species, habitats and ecosystems.12 As in the case of carbon and forests, this would require national – and where possible, international – legislation to create new types of commodities, e.g., commitments to establish a new preserved habitat in the future, to plant trees in the future, or to protect some species, which could then be traded within a cap (a defined limit on the resource established by political institutions), and thus become a financial asset. This would lead to what some scholars and activists have called the final financial project, “Nature Inc.”13
PREVENTING FUTURE ENCLOSURE OF THE COMMONS
Today we are living a paradox where after the crisis, financial markets are reinventing themselves and are even growing further despite some limited attempts to regulate them. At the same time they are displacing public finance and acquiring a larger share over the management and control of natural resources and strategic physical assets. For financial investors and speculators, controlling natural resources offers significant competitive advantages – information asymmetries, arbitrage possibilities, and hedging by pitting one sector against another e.g., energy users vs. food consumers, regardless of the environmental, social and economic implications.
Financial market managers need to diversify the assets they build upon for security reasons and natural resources offer a very safe option if their management is framed under a market-based approach that from the outset is designed to create new financial assets. However, one thing is clear: the further commodification of the commons would generate new liquidity that would directly be invested in financial markets, thus creating new bubbles and crises. Therefore, the financial restructuring of our economies will only worsen the features of our current over-financialized economy, and make exit strategies out of finance capitalism ever harder.
The financial enclosure of the commons has important implications for civil society struggles and organizing. First, the pressures to extract and commodify natural and social resources will further threaten the livelihoods of local communities that rely on them for their own sustainable and democratic development. However, to date, communities on the ground are largely oblivious of the new financialization scenarios and the new mechanisms aimed at boosting private profits by shifting risks to governments and citizens. Therefore, there is an urgent need to research and explain in plain words what is new in this process of financialization of the commons and how it goes far beyond commodification. Financialization is actually a new paradigm for securing additional leverage for dispossession. We need to expose the key drivers and actors, and open more political space for struggles on the ground so that different constituencies can co-develop a new analytic framework and political narrative that will advance a shared agenda.
Financialization of natural resources will not just affect “developing” countries; it will also be visible in advanced economies and the European Union in particular, where more and more large infrastructure and extractive projects will be pursued, provoking struggles and resistance on the ground. This would allow activists to establish new links of solidarity among affected communities, and in particular between advanced and emerging economies, helping to create renewed forms of international solidarity.
Second, we need to better understand the critical role that international institutions and major decision-making forums, such as the G20 and international financial institutions (IFIs), will play in promoting financialization and infrastructure-building in the name of “development.” Key governments, IFIs and influential forums such as the G20 are poised to build on previous work carried out on financial regulation and investment agreements. This would entail “advice” by influential governments and institutions to deregulate subsectors of the financial system, such as public pension systems, so that public and private actors could begin to invest in risky long-term operations and/or heavily structured financial products.
Third, civil society should open up new avenues of policy that go well beyond market-based mechanisms and public finance for existing fiscal and investment mechanisms. By focusing on alternative approaches to public finance, and by reclaiming and defending the commons beyond market and state, civil society could slow the expansion of financial markets.
Finally, financialization of emerging and developing economies will necessarily have inevitable and severe impacts on development processes. It will have serious macroeconomic and macrofinancial implications that are not yet well understood, even by governments. A broader international civil society discussion questioning both micro and macro impacts of this trend through a sustained narrative could open up new political space for democratizing and reclaiming development processes. In particular, discussions should be focused at the local level by asking a number of key questions: What projects and infrastructure are needed by communities? For whom? For what purposes? What forms of financing are needed in order to mobilize domestic resources for development of self-reliant communities and promote existing and new alternative projects and processes?
While the impending new wave of financialization is a serious threat, it also opens new opportunities to bridge civil society struggles at both the micro/community level and macro/national and international levels. One can imagine a new and unifying global campaign framework that would evolve from the “our world is not for sale” approach that has animated previous struggles against the global free trade and investment agenda.
What will happen in the very next years will be crucial. The financial industry will seek to build the consensus and legal and physical infrastructure to achieve a finance-driven enclosure of the commons. To make all of this possible, states will be asked by corporate interests to enact new legislation and authorize new financial infrastructures through ad hoc regulations. In part, this is already happening. It is therefore urgent that civil society movements understand the financial industry’s ambitions and act to stop them before it is too late.
- Klare, Michael T. 2001. Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict. New York, NY. Metropolitan Books.
- McKinsey Global Institute. 2011. “Mapping Global Capital Markets, available at:http://www.mckinsey.com/Insights/MGI/Research/Financial_Markets/Mapping_....
- 1.The Group of 20 is the self-proclaimed club of the 20 strongest economic nations, which collectively produce up to 85 percent of the worlds global GNP. These nations will decisively determine economic and political developments in the decades to come.
- 2.See essays by Lili Fuhr and Liz Alden Wily.
- 3.See the essay by Liz Alden Wily
- 4.Udayan Gupta. “The New Urgency of Emerging Markets,” Institutional Investor (June 16, 2011), available at http://www.institutionalinvestor.com/Popups/PrintArticle.aspx?ArticleID =2848080.
- 5.IFSL Research, Private Equity, August 2009. http://www.thecityuk.com/assets/Uploads/Private-Equity-2009.pdf
- 7.See the essay by Beatriz Busaniche on intellectual property rights and trade policy.
- 8.A detailed report about the dubious dealings of the Swiss company can be read here: http://www.zambianwatchdog.com/2011/05/04/detailed-report-on-glencore-mopani-mine-dubious-deals-in-zambia
- 9.Tracy Alloway, “Willem Buiter Thinks Water Will Be Bigger Than Oil,” Financial Times, July 21, 2001.
- 10.REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) is a policy model that seeks to financialize the capacity of forests to serve as a carbon sink in the global metabolic cycle. The carbon that forests absorb is being given a monetary value, which can then be used to give different weightings to various economic decisions and to facilitate market trading of carbon credits. In this way REDD will advance the process of finanicalization.
- 11.Editors’ note: These ramifications of REDD are not considered by Shrikrishna Upadhyay’s essay.
- 12.See Joshua Bishop, “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity in Business and Enterprise” (Earthscan) at http://www.teebweb.org
- 13.See Andreas Weber’s essay.
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Looking for some good books to read this summer? We’ve rounded up 10 titles that inspire, educate and entertain, Shareable-style. From underground societies and futuristic sci-fi, to the first Earth Day and citizen-driven government, these titles offer an engaging look at where we are, how we got here, and how we can help determine where we’re headed.
Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities by J.K. Gibson-Graham, Jenny Cameron and Stephen Healy (Univ. of Minnesotta Press): More and more people are searching for ways to live lives of meaning and contribute positively to humanity and the planet. Through exercises, tools and inspiring examples, Take Back the Economy offers answers to the question, What can I do to make a difference? Taking a bottom-up approach to global transformation, the authors argue that small-scale changes can have a large-scale effect.
Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society by Carrie Galbraith, John Law and Kevin Evans (Last Gasp): A “retelling...of the most influential underground cabal that you have never heard of,” Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society recounts the history of the society that inspired flash mobs, Burning Man, the book Fight Club and more. A band of pranksters, artists, activists and adventurers that came to define an underground movement, the San Francisco Cacophony Society planned events from the elaborate (a gathering of hundreds of “nuclear holocaust survivors”) to the simple (book and film discussions), and everything in between.
The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation by Adam Rome (Hill and Wang): In the late-1960s, Earth Day was just a stirring; an idea that people were ready to rally around environmental issues that were affecting their communities. But that idea, once put into action, started a chain of locally-focused, community-driven events that enabled Earth Day to grow into an annual event that is now celebrated around the world. As author Adam Rome told Shareable in the article What the First Earth Day Can Teach Us About Sharing, the genius of the first Earth Day was that the organizers empowered people to take ownership of the event and think creatively about how to address local environmental issues.
Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government by Gavin Newsom and Lisa Dickey (Penguin Press): In Citizenville, Gavin Newsom, the Lieutenant Governor of California, explores how ordinary citizens can reshape government using tech tools, including the Internet and smart phones, to bridge the divide between what we are capable of and government processes that are, “stuck in the last century.” Calling on citizens to help create innovative solutions to problems both local and global, Citizenville uses examples of successful citizen-driven projects as well as interviews with politicians and thought-leaders to demonstrate the potential of individuals to bring about change.
The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath by Nicco Mele (St. Martin's Press): An overview of how technologies are changing the balance of power, The End of Big explores how our ability to stay connected is dramatically changing our world, in ways both seen and unseen. Author Nicco Mele, a Harvard Kennedy School faculty member, argues that traditional institutions are being disrupted in revolutionary ways, which has the potential to bring about far-reaching positive changes. But the disruptions may also bring some unexpected results including the creation of political demagogues, the replacement of investigative journalism with tweets and blog posts and the rise of fringe political forces.
Shareable Futures: The Future Reclaimed as a Commons (Hyperink): In the Shareable anthology, Shareable Futures, some of today's most visionary and accomplished literary futurists including Cory Doctorow and Douglas Rushkoff imagine futures where technology has changed the rules of ownership and access, and people are able to share just about everything. Illustrating a future in which we thrive, the authors avoid utopian propaganda, and instead present hopeful, intelligent stories that speculate on our humanness and our shared potential.
To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism by Evgeny Morozov (PublicAffairs): Technology allows us to easily intervene in matters of politics, culture and everyday life but author Evgeny Morozov argues that such a seamless, digitally-driven approach to problem solving may be an oversimplification of great political and moral dilemmas. In To Save Everything Click Here, he poses questions such as, Is some friction in communication productive? and Are some of the imperfections of a democracy by design? Perhaps solutions to complex issues can’t always be quantified, tracked, gamed or clicked away.
The Nature of the Future: Dispatches from the Socialstructed World by Marina Gorbis (Free Press): In The Nature of the Future, renowned futurist Marina Gorbis explores a future in which distributed sources and social solutions to our immediate problems trump the dated, top-down organizational model. Using education, healthcare, food distribution and more as examples, Gorbis points out how individuals are harnessing the power of technology to create exciting new services including peer-to-peer lending clubs, member-run bio labs and online educational platforms to transform life as we know it.
Share or Die: Voices of the Get Lost Generation in the Age of Crisis Edited by Malcolm Harris with Neal Gorenflo (New Society): An anthology of writings by young people, Share Or Die explores some of the biggest challenges facing the millennial generation, including student debt, unemployment and underemployment, the education crisis and career confusion. It also provides a glimpse into the lives of people who are choosing alternative routes to fulfillment. At once entertaining, insightful, sobering and hopeful, the underlying theme of Share Or Die is that there is vast potential being wasted as college graduates are forced to take whatever jobs they can find; laying their talents and passions aside in the interest of paying down debt and staying afloat in an era of economic instability.
What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk about the Next American Revolution by Gar Alperovitz (Chelsea Green): In What Then Must We Do? author Gar Alperovitz points to the fact that many Americans are frustrated with the current economic system, concerned that it’s on the verge of collapse, and open to the idea that there may be a better one. He argues that a new system, one that is not corporate capitalism and not state socialism but something new entirely, could “democratize the ownership of wealth, strengthen communities in diverse ways, and be governed by policies and institutions sophisticated enough to manage a large-scale, powerful economy.”
All books include affiliate links to Amazon. Resulting purchases support Shareable, a nonprofit. Many of these books are available at libraries or local, independent bookstores, choices we recommend, too.
This article originally appeared on GreaterGood.org and is republished with permission. The GGSC's coverage of gratitude is sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation as part of our Expanding Gratitude project.
Why should anyone thank you for just doing your job? And why should you ever thank your coworkers for doing what they’re paid to do?
These are common questions in American workplaces, often posed rhetorically—and sometimes with hostility.
Elsewhere in American life, we say “thank you” to acknowledge the good things we get from other people, especially when they give out of the goodness of their hearts. We say “thanks” at home and in school, in stores and at church.
But not at work. According to a survey of 2,000 Americans released earlier this year by the John Templeton Foundation, people are less likely to feel or express gratitude at work than anyplace else. And they’re not thankful for their current jobs, ranking them dead last in a list of things they’re grateful for.
It’s not that people don’t crave gratitude at work, both giving andreceiving. Ninety-three percent agreed that grateful bosses are more likely to succeed, and only 18 percent thought that gratitude made bosses “weak.” Most reported that hearing “thank you” at work made them feel good and motivated.
Gratitude can often be found where we least expect it. Photo credit: Shannon Kringen. Used under Creative Commons license.
But here comes the messed-up, mysterious, and interesting part: Almost all respondents reported that saying “thank you” to colleagues “makes me feel happier and more fulfilled”—but on a given day, only 10 percent acted on that impulse. A stunning 60 percent said they “either never express gratitude at work or do so perhaps once a year.”
In short, Americans actively suppress gratitude on the job, even to the point of robbing themselves of happiness.
Why? It may be because in theory, no one gives away anything at work; every exchange is fundamentally economic. You don’t deliver that memo to your boss at three o’clock sharp out of the goodness of your heart, but because that is what you’re being paid to do. Your “thanks” is a paycheck. Fail to do what you’re “asked,” and you may not see another one.
Tellingly, only those who earned $150,000 or more were likely to express any gratitude for their jobs, according to the Templeton survey. This hints at one of the factors that undermines gratitude at work: power and pay imbalances. In a study published in January of last year, M. Ena Inesi and colleagues found that people with power tended to believe others thanked them mainly to kiss their butts, not out of authentic feeling—and as a result of this cynicism, supervisors are themselves less likely to express gratitude.
More on Gratitude
Indeed, the Templeton survey found that 35 percent of respondents believed that expressing any gratitude could lead coworkers to take advantage of them. When we acknowledge our interdependency, we make ourselves vulnerable. (And in fact, gratitude is not always the best response—see Amie Gordon’s essay “Five Ways Giving Thanks Can Backfire.”)
The result is a vicious, culturally ingrained circle of ingratitude, which can have a terrible effect on workplace morale and cohesion. Why should this be the case? Because the need for a paycheck is only one of the motivations we bring to work. We don’t just work for money. We also work for respect, for a sense of accomplishment, for a feeling of purpose. We invest our selves and our emotions into our jobs, and work affects our emotional states.
Gratitude is a non-monetary way to support those non-monetary motivations. “Thank you” doesn’t cost a dime, and it has measurably beneficial effects. In a series of four experiments, psychologists Adam Grant and Francesca Gino found that “thank you” from a supervisor gave people a strong sense of both self-worth and self-efficacy. The Grant and Gino study also reveals that the expression of gratitude has a spillover effect: Individuals become more trusting with each other, and more likely to help each other out.
The benefits of gratitude go beyond a sense of self-worth, self-efficacy, and trust between employees. When Greater Good Science Center Science Director Emiliana Simon-Thomas analyzed data from our interactive gratitude journal Thnx4.org, she found the greater the number of gratitude experiences people had on a given day, the better they felt. People who kept at it for at least two weeks showed significantly increased happiness, greater satisfaction with life, and higher resilience to stress; this group even reported fewer headaches and illnesses.
Finding gratitude and joy at the office is worth the effort. Photo credit: Phil Whitehouse. Used under Creative Commons license.
Building a culture of gratitude at work is not easy, but the science says it’s worth it. So here are five research-tested tips for fostering gratitude on the job.
1. Start at the top.
This is one of the clearest takeaways from research into workplace gratitude: Employees need to hear “thank you” from the boss first. That’s because expressing gratitude can make some people feel unsafe, particularly in a workplace with a history of ingratitude. It’s up to the people with power to clearly, consistently, and authentically say “thank you” in both public and private settings.
These efforts can also translate into protocols and procedures. When hiring someone new, bosses can ask: How do you wish to be thanked? When an employee leaves, throw them a goodbye party and take a moment to express appreciation for their qualities and contributions. Gratitude can also be built into performance reviews and staff meetings, where five minutes can be allocated for people to say “thanks” to each other.
2. Thank the people who never get thanked.
Every organization has a class of employee that hogs all the glory. In hospitals, it’s doctors. At universities, it’s faculty. And every organization has high-profile individuals. But what about those who cut the checks, submit the invoices, mop the floors, write the copy?
Thanking those who do thankless work is crucial because it sets the bar and establishes the tone. Yes, faculty do the research and teaching core to a university’s mission, but without a cadre of staff behind them they’d have to raise money for their own salaries and empty their own wastebaskets. Public appreciation of, for example, administration and physical plant staff makes their contributions visible and thus broadens everyone’s understanding of how the organization functions—and needless to say, it improves morale and increases trust.
3. Aim for quality, not quantity.
Forcing people to be grateful doesn’t work. It feeds the power imbalances that undermine gratitude in the first place, and it can make expressions of gratitude feel inauthentic.
The key is to create times and spaces that foster the voluntary, spontaneous expression of gratitude. It’s also the case that studies consistently show that there is such a thing as too much gratitude—it seems trying to be grateful everyday induces gratitude fatigue.
How do you convey authenticity? Details are decisive. When you are specific about the benefits of a person, action, or thing, it increases your own appreciation—and it tells a person that you are paying attention, rather than just going through the motions.
Appreciation is one area where a little goes a very long way. Photo credit: Lauren Manning. Used under Creative Commons license.
4. Provide many opportunities for gratitude.
When people are thanked for their work, they are more likely to increase their helping behavior and to provide help to others. But not everyone likes to be thanked—or likes to say “thank you”—in public. They may be shy or genuinely modest.
The key is to create many different kinds of opportunities for gratitude.
For example, research consistently finds that keeping a gratitude journal makes you twenty-five percent happier. Can an office keep a journal? Of course!
The Administration and Finance office of the University of California, Berkeley, created an appreciation platform that allows employees to recognize each other’s contributions, which feeds into a “Kudos” webpage that publically highlights these contributions.
You don’t need to build a website—a bulletin board will do, sometimes called a “Gratitude Wall.” But this kind of project will work best if it encourages the “thank you” to target actual human beings instead of things. We are all thankful for coffee, for example, but the gratitude should go to Mary, the administrative assistant who makes the coffee every morning.
Gift-giving is another way to foster gratitude. Research shows that giving gifts may have an important effect on working relationships and reciprocity—and non-monetary gifts are the most beneficial of all.
Giving creates gratitude, but giving can also be a good way to express gratitude, especially if the person in question is shy. You can say “thanks” by taking on scut work, lending a parking space, or giving a day off. These kinds of non-monetary gifts can lead to more trust in working relationships, if it’s reciprocal, sincere, and altruistically motivated.
There is one more, quite tricky way of fostering gratitude: Research points to the notion that gratitude might have positive effects on transforming conflicts, which can benefit the organization and working relationships. How do you do that?
It starts with the one charged with mediating the conflict: For example, a supervisor with two bickering employees might open a meeting by expressing sincere appreciation of both parties. Throughout the process, that person should never miss an opportunity to say “thank you.” The research says this attitude of gratitude will have a positive feedback effect, even if results aren’t obvious right away.
5. In the wake of crisis, take time for thanksgiving.
Cultivating a culture of gratitude might be the best way to help a workplace prepare for stresses that come with change, conflict, and failure. Making gratitude a policy and a practice “builds up a sort of psychological immune system that can cushion us when we fall,” writes psychologist Robert Emmons. “There is scientific evidence that grateful people are more resilient to stress, whether minor everyday hassles or major personal upheavals.”
Gratitude helps employees to see beyond one disaster and recognize their gains. Ideally, it gives them a tool “to transform an obstacle into an opportunity,” as Emmons writes, and reframe a loss as a potential gain. If your office has gone through a crisis, hold a meeting with the aim of gaining a new perspective on the incident. Emmons proposes a series of questions to help people recover from difficult experiences, which I’ve adapted for the workplace:
- What lessons did the experience teach us?
- Can we find ways to be thankful for what happened to us now, even though we were not at the time it happened?
- What ability did the experience draw out of us that surprised us?
- Are there ways we have become a better workplace because of it?
- Has the experience removed an obstacle that previously prevented us from feeling grateful?
The science says we Americans need to overcome our aversion to gratitude on the job, and come to see it as just one more career skill we can cultivate alongside skills like communication, negotiation, and forgiveness. It’s something anyone can learn—from which everyone will benefit.
This article originally appeared on PPS.org and is republished with permission.
When you think of the important places in the social life of your community, what comes to mind? Parks, squares, street corners, libraries, schools—these are common answers in many cities. They are the public spaces where we relax, where we meet friends, bump into neighbors; in short, the places that we all share. But there is another kind of commonly shared space that often goes unappreciated as a community hub in today’s convenience-oriented cities: the public markets where we buy our food.
While markets were historically important threads of a city’s social fabric (indeed, for centuries they were housed right inside of many city halls), sanitation concerns and a cultural obsession with convenience led to their demise in many western cities starting in the 1950s. The “super” markets that replaced these vital public spaces were some of the first of what we now know as big box stores. Today, many millions of people around the world rely on these fluorescently beige, air conditioned megastores, where the goal is to get in, get your shopping done, and get out as quickly as possible. But in some cities, even in the developed world, traditional public markets still reign supreme!
“Barcelona residents rank their public markets as the second most valuable public service after libraries.” Photo credit: PPS. Used under Creative Commons license.
“I don’t like to call them ‘supermarkets,’” joked Barcelona’s Jordi Tolrà i Mabilon of the big box stores now so popular with shoppers, “because real markets are actually what’s super.” Jordi was in town recently with Barcelona Vice Mayor Raimond Blasi for a discussion with New York City’s public and farmers market leaders. The event, hosted at PPS HQ, was intended as a meeting of the minds between the two cities to strengthen international cooperation and learn from Barcelona’s rich, growing market culture. The two came armed with some amazing statistics that should give hope to all of the market-lovers trying to turn today’s sterile food culture on its ear. For instance, did you know that of all the fruit, vegetables, and fish bought in Barcelona, the majority is bought at markets? Eight thousand vendors work at over 40 public markets throughout the city, supporting 65 million visitors a year and a €1 billion turnover.
As one might imagine based on stats like these, public markets are a substantial economic driver in Barcelona—and one that makes plenty of room for small businesses and fine-grained economic development. Despite a devastating financial crisis in Spain, Barcelona is prioritizing funding to keep markets alive and modern. People use the markets daily and are using them even more in these tough economic times.
It is the markets’ role as cultural and social centers that generates much of the public support that leads to that type of investment. Barcelona residents rank their public markets as the second most valuable public service after libraries. No matter where you are in Barcelona, you are never more than 10 minutes from a market.
“No matter where you are in Barcelona, you are never more than 10 minutes from a market.” Photo: Mercats de Barcelona. Used under Creative Commons license.
What this means is that fresh food is accessible for all communities, and indeed, Barcelona’s markets are used more by disadvantaged groups than by wealthy populations. That’s no accident; Barcelona is widely regarded as one of the few cities in recent history to actually have grown stronger because it served as a host city for the Olympics (an event that has caused financial trouble for many) back in 1992. The city treated its pre-Games spending as an investment in the city’s overall improvement, and modernizing the system of public markets was identified as a key way to make Barcelona more livable and pleasurable for all of its residents. Barcelona bet on its future by revitalizing its public markets; and in turn, the booming markets have helped to revitalize Barcelona.
The city’s impressive system of public markets offers us an important case study for how markets can function, even in a contemporary, globalized metropolis. Re-imagined as more complete places, these markets make it easier for residents to connect with their neighbors, especially when markets are located near other public services such as health care centers, libraries, and schools (which our esteemed guests make sure happens as often as possible). Traditional public markets, as we have often written, are about so much more than food. They are, like the cities that they support, about people. They are some of our most vital public spaces.
Just some food for thought, for the next time you’re standing alone in that brightly lit line at the local “supermarket.”
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The idea of fleeing the dysfunctional labor market is something you share with many, but, you ask, what are the alternatives? The truth is that the range is immense, but it's worthwhile to pause a moment on the "big models"
Most industrial SMEs still have a model, a common conception, of business that goes beyond the relationships between the people who work in it or its legal structure. It's an old model inherited from nineteenth-century capitalism, but above all, from the breaking of the production chains in the automotive industry and other big industries at the end of the '70s. At that time, a lot of big brands chose to close workshops and subcontract what was done in them to companies and cooperatives that employed the same workers. What did they have to do? Simply, the same thing they'd always done. But if demand dropped off, or if you wanted a better salary, it was no longer Fiat or Volkswagen's concern -- it was internal to the workshop, your workshop. Inspired by the Japanese idea of keiretsu, big brands diversified their providers, and made themselves relatively immune to labor conflicts. Industrial organization, which up until then had served to concentrate power, laid the foundation for a new form of production, which was atomized, but rigidly hierarchical. One Toni Negri became famous by theorizing about the world that would come out of the new Fiat. In this model, a businessperson is a gentleman who buys a machine that produces something, hires people to run it, and sells the result. Nothing more.
Along the manufacturing path of, for example, a car or an airplane, there will be various partial assemblers in a structure in which changes are guided by big brand names. Innovating in this framework means buying the machines necessary to respond to the new demands that come from "above." The key is in planning well for future income against payments and the financial costs of buying them, and the salaries that remunerate the workers. That's why it's possible, in this context, to talk about things like "planned innovation," which is an oxymoron in the real world we know.
Certainly, when reality doesn't adjust to the plan, the businessperson can't ask for more "flexibility," which is to say, co-responsibility from the salaried workers and their incomes in the process. This is the framework of a good part of the traditional union debate, and of the alternatives in industrial organization.
The effect of the reduction of the optimal scale of production on this kind of business does not have the liberating effect that it promises for the rest of society. On the contrary, since they are "one-technology businesses," and they are not part of developing that technology, if the optimal scale of that technology falls (which is happening, for example, in many of the machines that make parts for a multifunction, programmable robot), certain costs make it quit likely that their clients will simply integrate it into their internal process, reducing risks of hold-ups in delivery… even if costs remain competitive. Technological development, the underlying innovation, doesn't appear as somthing that can be contributed to or oriented, much less something whose orientation it make sense to discuss, but as something that is often negative: almost always dangerous -- if you don't have the wherewithal to buy the latest machine the assembler above you asks for -- and other times, fatal -- if they decide to buy it themselves.
Under a model like this, knowledge is knowing how to use a machine or carry out a process you didn't design. Or, when things go badly, the process might belong to an alternative, lower-cost provider in an emerging market. But there's no relationship between the knowledge that's developed and the evolution of the technology or the tools.
That's why the industrial conversation is not about technology or innovation. It simply wouldn't provide them with anything -- they are consumers, not agents, of technological change that comes from outside, from the upper levels of the chain. That's why, as Juan says, the industrial world doesn't value abstract knowledge, but applied knowledge.
That's also why the industrial conversation is centered on where knowledge itself can be incorporated into the productive process, because there's enough autonomy in the organization to do it and have an impact on the results: the organization of work and the relationships between the people that make up the business. This is where to learn from the industrial world. And believe me, there are some jewels.
But, what about start-ups and community companies? Well, they need further discussion...
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Dr Ron Paul has long been a leading voice for limited constitutional government, low taxes, free markets, sound money, civil liberty, and non-interventionist foreign policies.
His last term in the U.S. House of Representatives ended earlier this year, so we caught up with the former Congressman to get his latest perspective on how successfully our national leadership is dealing with America’s economic challenges.