Thursday, December 25, 2014

Spoiler alert: Don't think that cheap gas is a gift this holiday season.

Sorry to be a Scrooge during the holidays but don't think that cheap gas is an unmitigated gift. The media portrays low gas prices as a benefit to households and the economy (which it may be short-term), but we may be in for some volatile times.

Courtesy artur84,

What's wrong with cheap gas?

Undermines Renewables: Cheap oil and gas makes it harder for renewables to compete, slowing their development.

Boom and Bust: Low oil prices make it unprofitable to drill and communities are fighting back. (New York State just banned it.) So while some are rushing out to buy gas guzzling cars again, we could go from a glut to a shortage.

Geopolitical chaos: It's also destabilizing the world, sending OPEC countries including Russia reeling. Some believe OPEC is allowing oil to drop to bankrupt the US oil industry.  “OPEC’s determination to fight for market share remains a dominant bearish fundamental factor,” analyst Tim Evans at Citi Futures said. (Source)

Don't get me wrong; I'm concerned about climate change and we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. But this is a path to disruption. So it's even more urgent that we build a replacement infrastructure.

Dear Congress: Phase in a hefty green tax starting immediately

In 2008, right before the crash, Business Week suggested in an article called, The Real Question: Should Oil Be Cheap, the US impose a tax when oil dropped below $75 a barrel to create a floor in its price; the article recommended using that money to pay for developing renewables. Yes, that's Business Week recommending a new business tax.

Building on that idea, I think we need to add the equivalent of a $2 per gallon tax on all fossil fuels, phasing them in over perhaps 2 years. Use half the money to rebuild our failing highways/ bridges and electrical infrastructure. And the other half can fund renewables and efficiencies. If needed, a portion could be used to support the price of production while we still need it to maintain a steady but dwindling supply.

Of course, none of us think Congress could get this together unless the oil companies beg them for it. We need to act fast or we may be in for some turbulent times. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Why has the "News" devolved to retail hucksters for holiday shopping?

When did the news turn into hucksters for holiday shopping? The local news is the worst, sharing the "best deals" and opening times for stores, Black Friday this, Cyber Monday that. But even NBC Nightly News was talking about cheap gas prices as if they were an unmitigated gift to society and then said the $1100 annual household savings would "go straight under the Christmas tree." No mention of setting aside some of that in savings. Buy, buy, BUY! Even the supposedly objective journalists have become snake oil salesmen for our consumer society.

Image Courtesy 
David Castillo Dominici
Is it corporate ownership? That's the easy answer, but if you look at who owns whom, you'll see that most like Walt Disney and Time Warner are only in the entertainment business. Maybe that does explain the emphasis on big screen TVs and in the case of Disney, toys. But they aren't hawking their own books, videos and magazines.

Is it that they think that's what we want in news? Maybe, but that's a self-fulfilling prophecy....give us drivel and that's what we expect.

Is it that they are just as blind to our materialistic culture, thinking that is what makes us happy? I would hope they are better read and more intellectually curious.

Mainstream media gets the airwaves for free in return for providing public benefit. What if they redirected their hype from retailers to charities? They could promote the idea of giving charities for Christmas. When my family had all they needed, I did this as Christmas gifts.

This even works for kids. My niece thought it was really cool that she became the adopted parent of a white leopard for a year and when she graduated from high school, I took her on a volunteer vacation. I found a charity for my soccer-fanatic godchild that brought soccer balls to bombed out areas in the world to give the traumatized children there something fun to do. And when I gave him a couple hundred dollars as a graduation present, he wrote that he wanted to donate half of it to charity. Wow.

So give a REAL gift this year, a gift of compassion, a lesson in values, an experience that will last a lifetime.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Bringing Dirt to Life with Gray Water

Organic Vegetarian Vegan Food Collage Dark by KEKO64, Freedigitalphotos

I had always been dismayed by the performance of my potted plants. The tomatoes grew—barely— but never looked happy.

Then one day, my husband asked, "Given we're in a drought, why don't we collect the water from the kitchen sink?" Beaucoup marital points for that!

So we set a plastic pan on one side of the sink. We directed the really gunky stuff down the disposal—so the dogs wouldn't decide to supplement their diet by digging up the garden—and we rinse the dishes over the pan.

It's shocking how much water you use, just to rinse dishes! We empty it once or twice a day, even though seeing the quantity of water has made us much more sparing in its use.

Carrying a pan of soapy water has its challenges. So we decant it into a bucket with a plastic pitcher and toss in the coffee grounds and any left over coffee. This probably helps to maintain a reasonable pH.

We've been using that 'gray water' on the pots and also watering the entire backyard of landscaping. The irrigation has been turned off since early September when we started this practice.

Some research has found that if you water by hand, you use less water than drip irrigation. And this seems to be true. But the roses and photinia, not at all native to the area, all seem just as happy. And the potted plants perked up.

But what shocked me was when I lifted one of the pots to move it. Underneath, there was a convoy of red wigglers, likely the same guys I used to use in my worm bin. The sink water had turned the potting soil—basically dead dirt (even if you started with organisms in the potting soil, sitting in a plastic bag in the Home Depot parking lot during the sweltering summers would have cooked them)—into live soil.

I'm now mulching my pots with the leaves that clutter the patio, to give the critters something to eat during the winter. I hope I can ignore the guidance to throw out the potting soil and buy new next year. It's no longer potting soil; it's real soil.

I must mention that using gray water from the kitchen sink is not permitted by the State of Arizona, and gray water from other sources is not allowed for food except for fruit and nut trees. There is a concern that the food might be contaminated from the organisms. So keep that in mind when you wash your produce. But I've eaten root vegetables like carrots from the planter with no ill effects.

Image: Oberlin College
I am reminded of a visit I had to a Living Machine in Astoria, Oregon. These are artificial wetlands in a greenhouse designed to process sewage. The water goes through a couple tanks and then flows through a bed of tropical plants. At the time, this Living Machine didn't have enough sewage to run the whole system, so they had split it in two and one half was being fertilized with the equivalent of Miracle Grow.

The sewage side was lush, green, overwhelming it's area; workers beat it back with machetes.

The Miracle Grow side was peaked, yellow, alive sort of. Like my tomatoes in potting soil.

That's how I learned about the value of micronutrients. Plants need a lot more than NPK and nature can supply it if you just give it something to eat. Thanksgiving, indeed.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Never let money get in the way of doing the right thing

By Darcy Hitchcock

This is the first in a series of articles I want to share about ‘good work,’ how to manage organizations ethically in a way that develops employees’ full potential, and serves the greater good. Most of the stories are from what I experienced working with Marsha Willard in our firm, AXIS Performance Advisors. Please let us know if you appreciate these insights. We would be curious to know whether you like them as blog posts or would prefer them pulled together into a book.

Credit: Iosphere,
While it’s true that you can’t go bankrupt trying to do good in the world, there are all too many situations where people are tempted to do the wrong thing just for the money. In our experience, living by the principle of never letting money get in the way of doing the right thing built our credibility and brought us goodwill. In the long run, these actions often paid off in one way or another, or the sacrifice to our time and business were minimal. It became a principle we referenced often.
This principle has manifested itself in different ways during my career:

  • Referring clients to other consultants who could serve them better or partnering with other firms when we could better serve the client.
  • Doing work for free or at a huge discount
  •  Refusing to make the sale and give the client what they ask for, even when you really need the money

Referring clients/partnering

Referring clients strengthened our relationship with both the client and the other consultant. Clients were often shocked to find you would honestly tell them there are others who were better at what they needed. This built our reputation as being ethical. This wasn’t easy when we were just starting out, but it was preferable to doing a mediocre job.

We periodically would bring in other consultants to work on projects with us. It didn’t always lead to them returning the favor, but we always learned so much working side by side and enjoyed the camaraderie.

Doing work for free/discount

Working for free is tricky because you want the client to have some skin in the game. But we started ‘adopting’ a non-profit for a year, offering them free services, as part of our social responsibility. It started when a charity asked us for help and when I told them our hourly rate, they just whimpered, saying one hour would be their whole annual budget for professional development. I didn’t have the heart to just say, ‘sorry,’ and walk out the door. They needed services. So we just scaled the project to keep the time to a minimum.

This project turned out to be only marginally successful, in part because their management really wasn’t as invested as if they had had to pay for it. So we changed our approach. We looked for mutually beneficial opportunities, non-profits that needed something that we wanted to test out or learn. One year, we approached the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, offering to lead their new sustainability steering committee for half our normal rate in exchange for testing out our processes.  They got something of value but so did we; and this turned into a long-term relationship.

Refusing to give the client what they ask for

Before starting AXIS, I worked for a packaged training company. A plant at Cadillac was interested in buying a three-day team leader training for their employees, but the sales person, to his credit, picked up some odd vibes and asked that I go do an assessment. I spent three days on site, talking to managers, union officials, supervisors and frontline employees, learning what a truly terrible place it was to work.

What they didn’t know was our company was teetering on the brink of insolvency. The secretaries had to carry change to the copy shop because the store would no longer trust us to pay the monthly statement on time. I was faced with a situation where if we sold them the training program, the company could survive for a bit longer; and if I didn’t win the work, we would likely go under.

The problem was the training program wouldn’t fix their problems. Wouldn’t come close. So I told the joint union-management committee, “I wont sell you the training program, because it won’t do you any good. What I hear you wanting is an empowered workplace.” I described what were then called semi-autonomous or self-directed work teams and said, “This is what I hear you wanting and needing.” 

I put up an overhead showing a two-year project plan we thought would get them there with so many zeros in the cost column, I couldn’t say it out loud. It was a whole order of magnitude larger than what they had said they wanted. We had never had a project this big. “But if you’re serious, here is a plan to get you there.”

I stopped talking and waited, completely uncertain of what their reaction would be. I was prepared to get kicked out of the meeting. Finally, into the silence, the union president said, “You know, she’s right.”

That was the beginning of a grueling but most dramatically successful consulting engagement of my life. My dedicated and talented team took an autocratic culture and turned it around in two years. One manager, known to be a controlling autocrat said, “I used to make all the decisions. Now I probably make 5 percent, and I probably shouldn’t make half of those!”

Union employees were coming up with ideas to save money, improve the workflow, and even start internal businesses to make the corporation more money. The plant contributed to Cadillac’s winning the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. I heard after I left that General Motors brought plant managers from far and wide to try to replicate what we did, with little success, in part because they thought of it as a technique, not a leadership philosophy grounded in respect for people. The company and I used this transformative and prestigious experience to springboard us into new work.

So never let money get in the way of doing the right thing. Don’t trade your integrity for cash. It’s not worth it. And sometimes, when you do the right thing, you get paid back in surprising ways.

What you can do

·      Distractions—Don’t be tempted by work that isn’t part of your core mission unless it is the direction you want to go in the future, no matter how puny your accounts receivable look.
·      Not quite a fit—When you have a big opportunity, have an open discussion with your staff about your organization’s suitability. Would the client be better served by another organization or might you partner with someone else to strengthen your team? Do what is in the best interest of your client.
·      A stretch—If a project is a real stretch for your team, but it’s one you passionately want to pursue, be up-front with the client. Find a way to make it in their interest to work with you, valuing your enthusiasm over experience. This might involve sharing copyright or public credit.
·      The hand-off—Graciously refer business to other respected competitors in your industry, but let your competitors know you have done so to build goodwill.
·      Hand up, not hand out—Find a way to repackage your services for organizations that are not well-heeled. Set a goal to help a certain number of charities or small, disadvantaged businesses each year, but look for opportunities that are mutually beneficial, not just a hand-out.
·      The train wreck—Walk away from opportunities where your client’s demands will prevent you from being successful. Often clients will have a preconceived notion of what they need which often is not what they need. Suggest alternatives and explain how you see those approaches better serving their underlying needs. However, if the client continues to demand an approach which in your professional experience is likely to backfire, tell the client you don’t think you are the best fit for their needs.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What your annual physical should have been all along

More and more policy makers in the medical field are saying that the annual physical should be a thing of the past for most healthy people. (See this story in the Washington Post.) While GP's may miss the revenue, many will be relieved that they won't get barraged by a collection of issues the patient has stored up over the year. For doctors think the physical is only physical! They want to take your blood pressure, steal some blood, do a couple tests. If you bring up something else, your doc might look at you politely but he or she is thinking, "You should make an appointment for that."
Courtesy Stock Images, Freedigital photo
I think these two views--that you don't need to run these tests every year and the physical is just to run a few tests--completely miss the opportunity! We should still have an annual meeting with our doctors but it should be for what we, the patients, always thought it was: to review our overall health.

Throughout the year, you have issues that come up that don't seem urgent enough to warrant a special visit to the medical clinic. Maybe you notice you're getting headaches more often or having trouble losing weight or are about to split in two with the demands on your time. There's that clicking noise in your knee and a spot on your back that you're not sure you should be concerned about. When are you supposed to bring up those issues?

Doctors should continue to call us into their office once a year, but it should be more of a holistic conversation about your well-being: How's life? What worries you? Where do you experience pain? What are you eating and how much sleep are you getting?

Our medical system only seems to treat symptoms. If you have an urgent or painful situation, you go in but the doctors usually only address that problem. But they rarely ask how it might be related to other less urgent symptoms.

For years, I complained about pain in one part of my body or another, based on what hurt the most: my knee, my back, my shoulder, my neck. I would be offered pain relievers and sent on my way. But it was only by accident (actually a bike accident) that a doctor bothered to notice how I moved and discovered I had one leg half an inch shorter than the other. I was slowly becoming crippled. No doctor before ever asked, "Where else do you hurt?" so they could discover it was all on one side of  my body and a simple problem with body mechanics, not the natural effects of aging. The osteopath gave me a lift for my shoes and now most of my pain is gone.

Having been through this, I can identify people on the street who have a short leg. If I can do it, why can't every GP? So much pain comes from years of untreated problems of body mechanics. Shouldn't this be part of the physical too? Test my balance, strength and flexibility.

The so-called physical should be mental too. The mind-body connection fluidly sends symptoms in both directions. Anger and stress can lead to stomach aches and head aches; and pain can make you angry and stressed.

So doctors, fine, eliminate the physical. But replace it with an annual a holistic health assessment. That's what we thought it was all along!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Why aren't former climate skeptics contrite and eager to act?

The Thwaites Glacier,
at the leading edge of the
West Antarctic Ice Sheet
Former climate skeptics: I want an apology.
I know it’s petty of me, but I want an apology from all those people who have been denying climate change for the last several decades. Especially old friends and family who used to look at me with that infuriating there-there expression one would give to an overwrought child. Now they say, “Oh, yeah, climate change. Gosh, it’s terrible. Something should be done.” Notice the passive voice.
Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “First, they deny it. Then they say it conflicts with the Bible. Then they say they’ve known it all along.” I guess that’s human nature, our tendency to reinterpret our past to fit our positive self-image.
But recently we have heard that we have already past the tipping point regarding some impacts we have been warning about. A chunk of ice in the Antarctic, so large it exerts a gravitational force on the ocean around it, will inevitably melt, raising sea levels by 10 feet by 2100. In about 85 years; not centuries. Now they are begging us to protect Greenland, lest the ocean rise 30 feet. Oyster farmers in the Pacific Northwest are finding the ocean has gotten so acidic that their baby oysters can’t form a shell. Communities are being destroyed by record-breaking heat, drought and floods, and super-storms. Thomas Friedman has tied the conflict in Syria to climate-induced water problems that set off the revolution which has killed over 100,000 people. Just wait till the permafrost melts.
Thanks to climate deniers’ skepticism, political choices and inaction, we have lost decades when we could have been heading this off. It would have been so much easier and cheaper to head this off in the 1970’s. So much more humane to billions of people who live on the edge and to our children and their children.
How could we humans have been so blind? So selfish? And when did ‘sacrifice’ become a four-letter word? My father sacrificed in World War II to protect my freedom, and I had not been born yet. What would we have had to sacrifice? Maybe pay more for energy, travel a little less, forgo strawberries in December, live closer to work? Hardly Omaha Beach.
Every age has its primary challenge. Creating a sustainable society is ours. Unfortunately climate change is only one symptom. We also need to address synthetic chemicals in our bodies, invasive species, water and air pollution, and species extinctions. These too are a result of a few bad design choices our society has made. But all these will be more challenging in a changing climate.
Had we acted sooner, we could have addressed these challenges without much sacrifice. Sustainability shouldn’t be about not having what you want; rather just making sure you are getting it sustainably. So when political consultant Mary Matalin says, “Don’t tell us we can’t drive our SUVs,” she’s really saying “I don’t want to believe in climate change because it will be inconvenient.” I say, go ahead, drive your SUV, but buy carbon offsets so you can be climate neutral.
But now I don’t think we can avoid sacrifice, not just for the Syrians or the latest community hit by a monster tornado. Everyone will be affected.
So at least say you’re sorry. Be a bit contrite. Come to the scientists and sustainability experts now and say, “Tell us what we must do.” And then do it!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Reflections on Globalization

A Postcard from Myanmar

By Darcy Hitchcock

Note: This was originally published in 2003 by AXIS Performance Advisors. Since then, Myanmar has opened up with Aung San Suu Kyi now part of the legislature. But what I feared is already happening: large western chain hotels opening up on Inle Lake, foreigners cashing in on the tourist boom.

I just returned from a vacation in Myanmar (Burma) in 2003, one of the most closed societies left on planet earth. It has been isolated because of its repressive regime, which has prevented Aung San Suu Kyi from taking power even though she was elected in 1990 where she got 82% of the vote. At the time of this writing, Aung San Suu Kyi is once again under house arrest. The US government has placed sanctions on the country, preventing US companies from doing business there. In this article, I don't want to address accusations of human right violations. Instead I want to consider what might happen if their leadership changed and the country were then opened up to globalization. Their current government is resisting and speaking out against some of the impacts of capitalism, and I have to say, however impure their motivation may be, I think they have a point.

The country is not at all like what you'd expect of a "repressive regime." I've seen more military with guns at Chichen-Itza airport in Mexico or downtown Paris. The guide books say to keep your passport with you at all times but we encountered no checkpoints and no uzi-toting police on street corners. When we arrived in the country, an immigration officer even made small talk with us to pass the time, suggesting great places to visit, while we were waiting for them to find our paperwork. And we were told that it was safe to walk anywhere in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the capitol, at any time of day or night. How many US cities can you say that about? The only sign of control is that at every airport, we had to go through immigration again, as if we'd left the country. People are reluctant to speak out about their government in public, fearing reprisals, so this is not a free country. But on a day to day basis, it doesn't seem to make a lot of difference to the majority of people, except that sanctions against their country make doing business with those outside the country difficult, depressing their economic growth. So Myanmar is a great place to see how a local economy works, one largely unaffected by globalization.

I'd like to take you to Inle Lake in the interior of the country. The shallow lake is about 5 miles wide and 13 miles long, nestled between two mountain ranges such that the sun comes up in the mist over one and settles down behind scarlet clouds over the other. There are over 100 villages on and around the lake, representing several different peoples, and they share this region with over 150 bird species, including a kingfisher wearing an iridescent vest of emerald sequins. The verdant hills are covered with teak trees and flitting butterflies, and the highland villages there grow tea, mandarin oranges and apples. Much of the land near the lake is cultivated, growing potatoes, rice, beans and peanuts. Natural reed mats are used by some villages to make huge floating gardens where they grow tomatoes and corn right on the lake's surface, paddling up and down the rows in their narrow boats. Some villagers build stilt houses over the water and catch fish in bamboo nets. Buddhism permeates the culture and monasteries dot the countryside. It is one of the most serene and beautiful places that humans inhabit on earth.

Traditional fishing boat and net
Each village seems to have its own expertise or industry. In addition to the agricultural commodities I've mentioned, one village makes booze from the rice; another makes paper from the leaves of a local plant; another does metal working. Brokers in boats with putt-putt-putt single stroke diesel engines distribute the bounty around the lake. The floating market moves from village to village during the week. Adjacent villages cooperate to build schools made from concrete blocks produced with local materials and cured for two years in the sun. At least one village has a satellite university. People are gainfully self-employed but the pace is relaxed. On the east side of the lake, there are two tourist hotels, one owned by the Pa'O tribe, the other by a former physicist who is now an elected official of Aung San Suu Kyi's democratic party.

Amma, our guide who was half Shan and half Pa'O, took us to a Pa'O village that she had never visited. The hike was similar to ones in the Columbia Gorge, a couple hours of straight up through trees and occasional overlooks. We passed villagers who were coming down to the market and to the annual Buddhist celebration. Much of the way, we hiked alongside a woman who carried a bamboo basket by a strap across her forehead.

Once in the village beyond the top of the ridge, an older woman invited us into her house. Even though we were all complete strangers, she showed us how they dry leaves, which then get rolled into cigarettes (they are not free of vices, you see). Then she led us upstairs to their main rooms, where she offered us tea and we shared our lunch together. Like in much of Asia, the rooms were devoid of furniture so she brought out grass mats to sit on. Soon others from the neighborhood showed up to join us. At the end of this unplanned visit, she told my husband and me, through our interpreter, that she hoped we would come back and spend the night in her home. She said they didn't have much but whatever they had was ours.

We received this same welcome and hospitality in other villages as well. At the end of the lake, part way down river, was another village adjacent to old Buddhist stupas or shrines, where they made rice alcohol. As soon as we showed up, they proudly showed us how they made the liquor, offered us tastes of two kinds ("Oh God, please don't let me go blind") along with crispy, salty fried rice cakes. They expected nothing in return.

I asked Amma what challenges or problems the villagers faced. After a long look, making me wonder if I'd asked an inappropriate question, she said, "These people are poor but they have what they need." They have clean water, enough food, and access to western medicine including birth control at a health clinic. "Things change slowly in the villages," she added.

Buddhist Celebration
There is one village that has abandoned their ancestral farming practices, instead deciding to make souvenirs for the few tourists who visit this area, since they could earn more money doing it. They string beads and make jewelry out of silver. Our experience in this village was completely different. Our boat was accosted by others selling their wares. Women thrust items toward us. "Want to buy souvenir? You rich man," they would tell me. I was struck by the contrast. I can't say what it is like for them, but it seemed a much less dignified way to live, and more dependent upon decisions of outsiders (like George Bush and the UN). I began to wonder what life would be like for these villagers if the country finally did open up to westernization, globalization, Capitalism with a big "c".

Buddhist ceremony
You can probably imagine it as well as I. The prime sites would be purchased by Hilton and Marriott. Best Western and Motel 6's would follow, along with Arby's, Starbucks, and the Golden Arches. People would leave their villages to come clean toilets, serve meals and flip burgers. The fishermen, already the poorest of the tribes, would quickly discover it was more profitable to take tourists on "romantic sunset cruises", thus depriving the area of its main source of protein. Since some of the villages are several hours walk apart, a slum would certainly appear near the tourist areas, similar to the ones outside Yangon. Women with young children would be left alone in the villages to tend the fields. How long would it take until some of them sold off their land to developers who would then build vacation homes? Some of the farmland would be diverted to grow food the tourists prefer, so more and more people would have to find jobs so that they could pay for essentials, importing food from outside their area.

The villagers would have more money but most of the profits would be siphoned off to multi-national corporations. Infrastructure, like large sewage treatment facilities would have to be built, along with a marina to accommodate the larger, tourist-toting boats and probably also deafening jet skis for rent. Having to cover the 24-7 schedule of the hospitality industry, many would have to miss the most important Buddhist ceremonies and the monasteries instead would be filled with camera-clicking foreigners. The disparity in income would become even more pronounced, tearing apart their culture.
The villagers might then be able to get flush toilets, satellite TV and Tickle-Me-Elmos. But would their lives really be better? More meaningful? More satisfying? More healthy? I doubt it.

One of the villages is already getting a taste for this transformation. When they had to stop growing poppies (for cocaine) in the mountains, the men of one village went gone to work in the ruby mines, hundreds of miles away. The women and children were left to fend for themselves. When they do come home, in addition to money, the miners bring malaria and TB. Welcome home, honey.

We can condemn the repressiveness of Myanmar's government, but we should also acknowledge the devil's advocate role they are playing in our world's mindless pursuit of globalization. To join this parade would irrevocably destroy the beauty of what they have. Somehow, we must find a better balance. I sincerely hope that the Burmese get the democracy they crave. But when they do, I hope they continue to question the prevailing wisdom around globalization, capitalism, and free trade. They have an opportunity to teach us Westerners something about the benefits of predominately local economies: more control over your own fate, a closer and more engaged community, a more sane pace of life. While this may seem like screaming a wish into the wind, listen to what Herman Daly, former World Bank economist has to say in his recent book, Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development:
"I know this is an unthinkable thought right now, but take it as a prediction---ten years from now the buzz words and hot concepts will be 'renationalization of capital' and the 'community rooting of capital for the development of national and local economies,' not the current shibboleths of export-led growth stimulated by whatever adjustments are necessary to increase global competitiveness. 'Global competitiveness' (frequently a thought-substituting slogan) usually reflects not so much a real increase in resource productivity as a standards-lowering competition to reduce wages, externalize environmental and social costs, and expert natural capital at low prices while calling it income."
I hope he's right. Myanmar may not be a model economy, but they provide a living laboratory for examining what we've lost. Perhaps there is a way to reinstate the values that are important to us without compromising appropriate development - to create an economic system that works for us, not against us. We have been pursuing economic growth and creation of jobs as if they are ends in themselves. They're not. We need to start asking, what is an economy for? We need to start focusing instead on quality of life. Then perhaps we can have a more sane and sustainable world.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Boomers Step through the Looking Glass: Don't Retire, ReFIRE!

As all the baby boomers enter their sixth decade, the question looms: What's next? We could live another 30, 40 or maybe even 50 years. That's more time than we each spent in our chosen career. What will we make of that time? When should you switch from working for money to working for love? What makes the transition easier? I wanted to share my experiences in case they might help others on their journey.

Image: Stuart Miles
At the same time the boomers are getting AARP and Medicare mailings, the world has a bazillion pressing problems, not the least of which include climate change, terrorism, habitat destruction, disease and poverty. So I feel a pressing need to earn my keep on this crowded planet.

What the world needs from me now has changed, just as I have changed. The sustainability consulting I was doing through AXIS Performance Advisors was the perfect place for me a decade ago but the world has moved on and needs something else. I didn't have the energy or insight to push AXIS into another evolution and I didn't want to compete with all the people we had trained in our processes. It was time to move on. But to what? And how? And what will I tell people when they inevitably ask, "What do you do?"

Are you peering through the retirement looking glass, wondering about this odd world on the other side? Do you fear what will happen to your identity? Here are some steps and a bit of advice from my own experience.

Step 1: Clarify "Enough"

An opening Stanza of Alice in Wonderland:
Thus grew the tale of Wonderland:
Thus slowly, one by one,
Its quaint events were hammered out —
And now our tale is done
And home we steer, a merry crew,
Beneath the setting sun.

Some believe the Boomers have an obligation to step down from their positions to open up jobs for Millennials and others who are having trouble after the 2008 crash in finding jobs. If you have enough to live off of, why not do it?

First you have to address what is truly Enough for you. In our consumer-obsessed society, we all accumulate stuff we don't need: larger houses, more technology, hours on planes going on vacation to places we didn't really want to see all that much. So make an inventory of all that you have and do and cross out anything that doesn't bring joy.

Then figure out the money to provide for that lifestyle. Many financial planners have programs that can help you determine if your nest egg is big enough. I was always suspicious of their embedded assumptions (eg, you'd need 80% of what you lived off of when you were working; that inflation would be X%, etc.)

So we did two things. First we figured out what we needed to live. I got iBank to spit out how we spent our money. We deducted what we would no longer have to pay for (eg, we were downsizing) and added in a budget for fun stuff like travel. Then we asked our financial advisor to look at the historical inflation of the categories we spend most of our money on: food, energy, medical costs, etc. You will find the inflation rates for those items are a far cry from the Consumer Price Index! We used those inflation figures and income needs to come up with a financial plan. Then we added a hefty margin for error. We had our Enough Number and the goals for our investments.

If you don't have Enough now, then think about what you will have to give up to get it. Do you love your work? Then you can perhaps 'semi-retire', a good idea in any case to experiment. But if you don't like your job, can you reassess some of your so-called needs? If you were to die a year from now, as the light was fading, what would you think, "Aw Sh-t, why didn't I ____?" Or get another job that will age well along with you.

If you have more than Enough, then start planning how to give it away while you are alive. Warren Buffett created the Giving Pledge, asking billionaires to give away half their wealth. Well, you don't have to be a billionaire. Do you really need that second house or boat or bauble? Boomers are going to benefit from the biggest transfer of wealth in history through inheritance. If you have kids, leave them enough so they won't be paupers but not so much they don't have to work for what they want. My view is that we have problems now that need to be solved now and no amount of money later will be worth anything if we destroy the planet or have a nuclear war. So I'm (mentally) signing on to the Giving Pledge even though our assets are not even in the same universe as Buffett's.

How much would you be willing to give up now to leave the next generations a viable world?

Step 2: Figure out what you are retiring to, rather than from


           Cheshire Cat: 
"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where –" said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.
"– so long as I get somewhere," Alice added as an explanation.
"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."

I think most boomers think the kick-back-n-golf model of retirement is bunk. And it's also not good for your health. Most people need a sense of purpose to be happy and to maintain their mental faculties. So what do you care about? What issues do you want to help solve? What's on your Bucket List? If you don't know the answer, there are a number of methods to do so. One I like is the Vision Board by Martha Beck.

A dog-nut friend of mine volunteered for the Humane Society for a couple years before retiring from the airlines. She then slipped seamlessly into a part-time and later full-time position, spending her days getting one fur-fix after another.

For my husband and me—and I can't have been more surprised—part of our answer was moving to Sedona. I always thought it was stupid to leave your community and support network. But for my health, I really needed to get to a sunnier spot. Moving also helped us accomplish #1 above, getting rid of stuff. We were moving to a smaller condo, so if it didn't have a place in our new home, it went on Craigslist or to Goodwill. I even gave away our wedding china; I had been holding onto it in our attic for years thinking it was bad juju to give it away; but I never liked it. Mom did, but not I.

It was freeing!!!  Gifts we never used; clothes I never wore; clutter. Gone, gone, gone! Not just gone, but gone onto someone else who really needed and wanted it. I sold my mom's childhood four-poster bed, what had been my bed since I was small, on Craigslist to a woman who was in Stage 4 breast cancer, who was hoping for the best but wanted a nice bed to rest in if her health went the other way. I wanted to cry. Giving stuff away is joyful.

Step 3: Find where you can contribute


Alice to the Turtle:
'I could tell you my adventures — beginning from this morning,' 
said Alice a little timidly:
 'but it's no use going back to yesterday, 
because I was a different person then.'

First, make space in your life. I started to say no or get out of things that didn't meet my Fun Test: Did it sound like fun? I resigned from the professional association, scaled back my work, and waited. You have to create space in your life and your mind and see what emerges.

Then I interviewed people in the area (eg, since I was new in town, I met with one of the city council members) to find out what was going on in town, what the needs were, etc. She asked what I liked/was interested in and then started rattling off stuff. I got several pages of notes including contacts.

Then I started following up on those contacts, the ones that met my Fun Test. And I paid attention to repeated pokes to do something. For example, I contacted a teacher at a school that sounded like a really good fit. I sent her an email but never heard back, so I figured she didn't want help. But several other people mentioned her, so I tried again a few months later only to find out that she really wanted my help but had been overwhelmed with personal issues at the time I contacted her.

I gave myself a year to settle in. The transition was a delightful journey. I am thrilled and just busy enough, still honoring my Fun Test, taking care of myself and having a blast.

Step 4: Rework your answer to the Caterpillar: Who are you?


The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: 
at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, 
and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.
'Who are you?' said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation.

In our society, who you are = what you do (ie, for pay).  But if you reFire, what do you say when you meet someone and they ask, "What do you do?"

Adam Leipzig has a simple format for figuring out your life purpose by answering five questions. If you do this exercise, you will have a good answer to that cocktail question.

  1. Who are you (your name)?
  2. What do you do?
  3. Who do you do it for?
  4. What do they want and need?
  5. What do they get out of it; how do they benefit as a result?

Then, when someone asks you the dreaded question, you have an answer. You can just start with your answer to the fifth question. For example, maybe you say, "I inspire joy." If you asked me what I do, I might say, "I make it easy for teachers to embed sustainability concepts into their classrooms so their students can guide us toward a better world." It invites the next question, How? Let the deeper conversations begin!

Watch Adam Leipzig's Tedx Talk for more guidance on the 5 steps.

The best part, for me anyway

Do you want to know the best part of being reFired? It's not that I can do anything I want; I can't and anyway, that's a daunting challenge.

It's that I don't have any hierarchical relationships anymore. I don't have a boss; I don't have paying clients; I don't even have parents to disapprove. I might do something that upsets someone, but there is no one over me with the power to make me be like someone I'm not. Scientists are finding that fit and purpose are key to human happiness. Now I can pursue what interests me, whether or not the market pays for it; and my talents can be put to use and valued by the people I share them with.

ReFIRE your passions; ReFIRE your life's purpose; ReFIRE your love of life....until the moment we each flame out.