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‘We need to tackle the root causes of inequality and poverty’

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The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better is a book that explores poverty and inequality, targeting the huge social and economic gap between the rich and the poor. Kate Pickett, co-author with Richard G Wilkinson, is director of the Equality Trust, and an inspiring voice in the fight against inequality and poverty.

After conducting extensive research and experience into the social determinants of health in relation to inequality and social class, there is arguably no other better voice to answer questions about some of the underlying issues of poverty and inequality that faces the UK.

With that, Emma Websdale caught up with Pickett to discuss her thoughts on equality matters that often divide opinion.

You have made great contributions towards writing and exposing the truth about inequality across societies. During this time, what is the most important message that you wish to stress?

When I think about the kind of society I want to live in – indeed which almost all of us want to live in – the big change we need to see in the world is a better quality of life for everybody and sustainable ecologies, economies and cultures.

We need to find a way to live on this Earth without harming it, and a way of sharing resources to enhance the wellbeing of the greatest number.  Inequality is at the heart of this. It causes economic instability and poverty, and is a barrier to sustainability, as well as having direct effects on our wellbeing.  So tackling inequality within and between countries is important for all of us, and for future generations.

What do you think are the biggest causes of the levels of inequality in the UK?

The huge rise we saw in inequality under Thatcher came from a political and economic ideology that emphasised individualistic pursuit of wealth and the undermining of social solidarity.

We could organise our taxation system and our investments differently; we could choose to spend less on some things and more on others. Despite what we’re told, there are alternatives

And despite years of progressive budgets under New Labour, which helped to raise children and pensioners in particular out of poverty, financial deregulation and a lassez-faire attitude towards wealth accumulation meant that levels of inequality stayed high.

Strong trade unions can help to counteract these trends, as can greater economic democracy – more employee representation on remuneration boards within firms, more co-operatives and employee-owned companies.

What do you think can be done to help families that suffer from the health-related illnesses associated with inequality and poverty?

In public health, we know that prevention is better than treatment, so we need to tackle the root causes of inequality and poverty.  And these are not, as our current government likes to proclaim, due to broken and dysfunctional families.

Family breakdown is a symptom of poverty and inequality rather than a cause.  Most poor children live in families where at least one parent is working, and in other countries single parenthood is not associated with poverty the way it is in the UK.  What is most needed right now are decent wages – that’s why I support the Living Wage movement.

Your 2011 Guardian article, How to make children happy? Reduce social inequality, explored the UNICEF report that looked into how consumerism and inequality affects families. From this, do you feel that children that are brought up in a family with inherent consumerism morals are also affected negatively?

The UNICEF report shocked and saddened me. It highlighted the degree to which families in the UK were affected by time pressures and stress, and how often they seemed to be at sea in their parenting, compared to families in Spain and Sweden.

Children in all countries talked about liking time with their families, doing simple things like going to the park.  But the UK parents seemed to compensate for their busyness and their tiredness by buying things for their children – they also expressed how important it was for their children to keep up with other kids.

Consumerism is a huge threat to environmental sustainability

They needed the right trainers and the right mobile phone or game system.  That just wasn’t an issue in the Spanish and Swedish families.  Children want our love and our time and giving them other things to compensate can’t actually fill that gap.

It’s hard not to sound negative here – the UK parents in the study all clearly loved their children and wanted to do their best for them but they were so pressured by our materialist culture and by their lack of time.

Do you feel that adults and children suffer differently from inequality pressures?

There’s an intergenerational cycle through which says the damage done by inequality gets passed on. Adults in more unequal societies are living in a less trustful environment, work longer hours, have more mental and physical health problems etc.

They cannot help but transmit their experience to their children, and it’s in our early years that we learn what kind of society we live in – kind and nurturing, or dog-eat-dog and tough.

But of course children also have direct experience of poverty and inequality – from as young as five-years-old, they’re aware of whether their house is bigger or smaller than other kids’ houses. They start very early to have a sense of their place in society.

Do you feel there is enough scientific research exploring topics of inequality, consumerism and inequality?

No, not enough, although there is some excellent work out there.  The UNICEF UK report was exemplary, and Professor Tim Kasser in the US is a renowned expert in this field.

We need to find a way to live on this Earth without harming it, and a way of sharing resources to enhance the wellbeing of the greatest number

In his book, The High Price of Materialism, he lays out very clearly how our culture of consumerism affects happiness and wellbeing.  When we value wealth or material possessions too much, we’re at risk of anxiety, depression, difficult relationships and low self-esteem.

Consumerism is also, of course, a huge threat to environmental sustainability, and so finding ways to shift away from that is important for the planet, as well as for people.

We need more research to help us understand how best to do that, and to make a strong empirical case for something like a steady-state economy and much greater social cohesion, so we can all flourish without needing more and more things.

Another Guardian article of yours speaks about inequality being one of the causes behind the riots in 2011 – a factor that the general public may not even consider. Do you see any alternative methods of expressing the frustration of those living in poverty?

It’s so easy to preach from the sidelines, but if people can become organised and effective within their communities and be empowered to make change, then obviously that is a better way of expressing frustration than rioting.

For young people, who may feel particularly disengaged with politics or community issues, and feel particularly helpless, we need to find ways to bring them together to find their voices and their strength in collective action.

Finally, are there any organisations that you have seen effectively helping those living in more difficult circumstances that you would like to recommend?

The answer I’d really like to give is that the government (and therefore, all of us collectively) supports those who need it, whether temporarily or long-term. But as they slash away at social security and pile the costs of austerity onto the poorest they are actually taking away support from those who need it most.

There are so many organisations who do so much good – all of the children’s charities, the food banks and those who provide shelter and accommodation, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau and others giving frontline advice, many church and faith groups, and empowering organizations like London Citizens.

But, truly, we shouldn’t need charities to feed, shelter, care for and counsel people.

We are, even in these times, a rich country. We could organise our taxation system and our investments differently; we could choose to spend less on some things and more on others. Despite what we’re told, there are alternatives.

Further reading:

Lies from politicians and the media ‘create harmful divisions in society’

We can no longer sit comfortably with the myths behind poverty

Report ‘ends comfortable myths about poverty’

UN creates sustainable development group to ‘define the world we want’

UN: invest responsibly in agriculture to beat global poverty

Economy

How Going Green Can Save A Company Money

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going green can save company money
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By GOLFX

What is going green?

Going green means to live life in a way that is environmentally friendly for an entire population. It is the conservation of energy, water, and air. Going green means using products and resources that will not contaminate or pollute the air. It means being educated and well informed about the surroundings, and how to best protect them. It means recycling products that may not be biodegradable. Companies, as well as people, that adhere to going green can help to ensure a safer life for humanity.

The first step in going green

There are actually no step by step instructions for going green. The only requirement needed is making the decision to become environmentally conscious. It takes a caring attitude, and a willingness to make the change. It has been found that companies have improved their profit margins by going green. They have saved money on many of the frivolous things they they thought were a necessity. Besides saving money, companies are operating more efficiently than before going green. Companies have become aware of their ecological responsibility by pursuing the knowledge needed to make decisions that would change lifestyles and help sustain the earth’s natural resources for present and future generations.

Making needed changes within the company

After making the decision to go green, there are several things that can be changed in the workplace. A good place to start would be conserving energy used by electrical appliances. First, turning off the computer will save over the long run. Just letting it sleep still uses energy overnight. Turn off all other appliances like coffee maker, or anything that plugs in. Pull the socket from the outlet to stop unnecessary energy loss. Appliances continue to use electricity although they are switched off, and not unplugged. Get in the habit of turning off the lights whenever you leave a room. Change to fluorescent light bulbs, and lighting throughout the building. Have any leaks sealed on the premises to avoid the escape of heat or air.

Reducing the common paper waste

paper waste

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Yury Zap

Modern technologies and state of the art equipment, and tools have almost eliminated the use of paper in the office. Instead of sending out newsletters, brochures, written memos and reminders, you can now do all of these and more by technology while saving on the use of paper. Send out digital documents and emails to communicate with staff and other employees. By using this virtual bookkeeping technique, you will save a bundle on paper. When it is necessary to use paper for printing purposes or other services, choose the already recycled paper. It is smartly labeled and easy to find in any office supply store. It is called the Post Consumer Waste paper, or PCW paper. This will show that your company is dedicated to the preservation of natural resources. By using PCW paper, everyone helps to save the trees which provides and emits many important nutrients into the atmosphere.

Make money by spreading the word

Companies realize that consumers like to buy, or invest in whatever the latest trend may be. They also cater to companies that are doing great things for the quality of life of all people. People want to know that the companies that they cater to are doing their part for the environment and ecology. By going green, you can tell consumers of your experiences with helping them and communities be eco-friendly. This is a sound public relations technique to bring revenue to your brand. Boost the impact that your company makes on the environment. Go green, save and make money while essentially preserving what is normally taken for granted. The benefits of having a green company are enormous for consumers as well as the companies that engage in the process.

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Energy

5 Easy Things You Can Do to Make Your Home More Sustainable

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sustainable homes
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By Diyana Dimitrova

Increasing your home’s energy efficiency is one of the smartest moves you can make as a homeowner. It will lower your bills, increase the resale value of your property, and help minimize our planet’s fast-approaching climate crisis. While major home retrofits can seem daunting, there are plenty of quick and cost-effective ways to start reducing your carbon footprint today. Here are five easy projects to make your home more sustainable.

1. Weather stripping

If you’re looking to make your home more energy efficient, an energy audit is a highly recommended first step. This will reveal where your home is lacking in regards to sustainability suggests the best plan of attack.

Some form of weather stripping is nearly always advised because it is so easy and inexpensive yet can yield such transformative results. The audit will provide information about air leaks which you can couple with your own knowledge of your home’s ventilation needs to develop a strategic plan.

Make sure you choose the appropriate type of weather stripping for each location in your home. Areas that receive a lot of wear and tear, like popular doorways, are best served by slightly more expensive vinyl or metal options. Immobile cracks or infrequently opened windows can be treated with inexpensive foams or caulking. Depending on the age and quality of your home, the resulting energy savings can be as much as 20 percent.

2. Programmable thermostats

Programmable thermostats

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Olivier Le Moal

Programmable thermostats have tremendous potential to save money and minimize unnecessary energy usage. About 45 percent of a home’s energy is earmarked for heating and cooling needs with a large fraction of that wasted on unoccupied spaces. Programmable thermostats can automatically lower the heat overnight or shut off the air conditioning when you go to work.

Every degree Fahrenheit you lower the thermostat equates to 1 percent less energy use, which amounts to considerable savings over the course of a year. When used correctly, programmable thermostats reduce heating and cooling bills by 10 to 30 percent. Of course, the same result can be achieved by manually adjusting your thermostats to coincide with your activities, just make sure you remember to do it!

3. Low-flow water hardware

With the current focus on carbon emissions and climate change, we typically equate environmental stability to lower energy use, but fresh water shortage is an equal threat. Installing low-flow hardware for toilets and showers, particularly in drought prone areas, is an inexpensive and easy way to cut water consumption by 50 percent and save as much as $145 per year.

Older toilets use up to 6 gallons of water per flush, the equivalent of an astounding 20.1 gallons per person each day. This makes them the biggest consumer of indoor water. New low-flow toilets are standardized at 1.6 gallons per flush and can save more than 20,000 gallons a year in a 4-member household.

Similarly, low-flow shower heads can decrease water consumption by 40 percent or more while also lowering water heating bills and reducing CO2 emissions. Unlike early versions, new low-flow models are equipped with excellent pressure technology so your shower will be no less satisfying.

4. Energy efficient light bulbs

An average household dedicates about 5 percent of its energy use to lighting, but this value is dropping thanks to new lighting technology. Incandescent bulbs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. These inefficient light sources give off 90 percent of their energy as heat which is not only impractical from a lighting standpoint, but also raises energy bills even further during hot weather.

New LED and compact fluorescent options are far more efficient and longer lasting. Though the upfront costs are higher, the long term environmental and financial benefits are well worth it. Energy efficient light bulbs use as much as 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent and last 3 to 25 times longer producing savings of about $6 per year per bulb.

5. Installing solar panels

Adding solar panels may not be the easiest, or least expensive, sustainability upgrade for your home, but it will certainly have the greatest impact on both your energy bills and your environmental footprint. Installing solar panels can run about $15,000 – $20,000 upfront, though a number of government incentives are bringing these numbers down. Alternatively, panels can also be leased for a much lower initial investment.

Once operational, a solar system saves about $600 per year over the course of its 25 to 30-year lifespan, and this figure will grow as energy prices rise. Solar installations require little to no maintenance and increase the value of your home.

From an environmental standpoint, the average five-kilowatt residential system can reduce household CO2 emissions by 15,000 pounds every year. Using your solar system to power an electric vehicle is the ultimate sustainable solution serving to reduce total CO2 emissions by as much as 70%!

These days, being environmentally responsible is the hallmark of a good global citizen and it need not require major sacrifices in regards to your lifestyle or your wallet. In fact, increasing your home’s sustainability is apt to make your residence more livable and save you money in the long run. The five projects listed here are just a few of the easy ways to reduce both your environmental footprint and your energy bills. So, give one or more of them a try; with a small budget and a little know-how, there is no reason you can’t start today.

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