What does a neuroscientist eat for breakfast?

June 26, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society, Recovery 

In its quest for a more ‘circular economy’, the RSA Great Recovery is focusing on the links between design, materials and waste. Last week, I visited the Science Museum’s new installation on rubbish.

The bowels of the Science Museum are perhaps an appropriate space for an exhibition about waste. You can smell it even before you reach the entrance to the Rubbish Collection. The odour has been somewhat deodorised for public consumption, but the unmistakeable whiff of putrefying food, stale coffee and plasticisers reaches into the stairwell above.

Needless to say it is this ‘pong’ that seems to prevent some visitors from venturing down into the strip-lit atrium, where volunteers in boiler suits and gloves are tipping bags of rubbish onto a row of white tables.

The Rubbish Collection is a project by artist Joshua Sofaer which hopes to change people’s attitudes towards waste by bringing them into close proximity with it. Once an object is brought into a museum, says Sofaer, it is usually imbued with a certain value and afforded a kind of reverence. Not so once it turns to waste, and he is on a mission to involve the public in documenting and examining the museum’s discards over a period of 30 days. Read more

Where does all this stuff come from? (food, phones, meat and tea)

January 16, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Over the last few days I have noticed several people daring to think about – and this really is rather daring – where all their stuff comes from.

It started with food in general, in the context of an appearance on the Today Programme. My basic argument was that our sense of what is wasteful depends on our perception of scarcity, and we don’t experience scarcity, mostly because we are so far removed from the provenance of the things we rely on: food, water and energy. I am beginning to think that the core problem is that such things are kept relatively cheap only because we don’t factor in their true environmental, social and health costs, and an excellent editorial in Sunday’s Observer: “There’s a price to be paid for our cheap food”  seemed to share this view.

Image via www.gulawweekly.org

Then I noticed a tweet from Public Understanding of Science supremo Alice Bell this morning: “Those last two tweets posted from my phone. Which is amazing. But I want to know more about the materials, people & injustices that made it.” She probably already knows this story about phone materials, but it is pretty shocking. A line from the feature captures the core problem- there is a huge demand for tin due to our insatiable appetite for new phones, but the kinds of tin we need are not easy to extract, and cause a great deal of harm along the way:  “Tin mining is a lucrative but destructive trade that has scarred the island’s landscape, bulldozed its farms and forests, killed off its fish stocks and coral reefs, and dented tourism to its pretty palm-lined beaches.”

(Image via thehindu.com)

On the same Twitter stream there was a report about Tea plantations being threatened by Climate Change. My colleague Dr Emma Lindley has a charming biographical line “Manchester-based drinker of Yorkshire tea” and I’m partial to Yorkshire tea myself, but you don’t need to pause for long to realise that Yorkshire tea is not actually grown in, y’know, Yorkshire. It seems there is now a consortium of tea companies “Tea 2030″ supported by Forum for the Future who are realising that some of the places most likely to be impacted by climate disruption (by the way, I think that’s a much better term than ‘climate change’ HT Ian Christie). If the idea of Polar bears swimming in search of ice until they drown didn’t get your attention, perhaps waking up without access to a good and affordable cuppa might do it.

(Image via touristindia.org)

Finally(for now at least) I remembered the absolutely wonderful RSA event “Eating Animals” featuring Jonathan Safran Foer. I strongly urge you to listen to the full audio podcast which includes his considered answers to some tough audience questions. I loved this talk because I don’t think people should wear the term ‘vegetarian’ as some sort of self-righteous badge of honour, and then cross-examine people for their consitency of their practices (milk? eggs? leather?). I fully agree with Jonathan’s point that making it a moral binary, an either-or, just doesn’t help. People are attached to meat for lots of reasons, not just taste but various valued cultural and spiritual practices that involve it.

(Image via guardian.co.uk)

The key is first to recognise the harm involved in the process, and to take responsibility for your actions with as much awareness as you can. And that’s the reason the talk was so brilliant. The main take-home point for me was his simple observation that the meat industry relies on ignorance about food production and guards it very carefully. The corollary (note to self: at some point it’s worth digging out the exact quotation) is that Jonathan says something like “It only goes in one direction. The more you know about where it comes from, the less you want to eat it.”

The same point applies to ethical behaviour and sustainability more broadly- much of it is about who owns and protects information. More about that on Friday.

Why do we waste so much food?

January 11, 2013 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

While minding my own business yesterday I received an unexpected call asking me to appear on The Today Programme to discuss the psychological underpinnings of why we waste so much food. They chose me with my Social Brain hat on, because they wanted to explore wider issues relating to people acting against their own self-interest and the nature of irrationality.

This is my fourth time on the show, and in my experience, the off air conversation with the producer- who is basically checking you out- is invariably much deeper and longer than the conversation with the presenter. When the programme says there will be five minutes, that usually means 1 minute for the presenter, 2 for the other guest(in this case, Angie Hobbs) and 2 minutes to say what you can about the subject, in the context of the questions and answers already given.

(image via ecofoodrecycling.co.uk)

The snippet is here, at about 8.55am, squeezed into the end of the show, and you can judge for yourself whether they were minutes well spent (or indeed whether such an important discussion might have been more worthy of minutes than some of the items earlier in the show).

My main point was that our perception of waste is relative to our experience of scarcity, and for most of us, things like water, food and energy do not feel scarce, even though, taken globally, they are. In so far as there is a solution, it may lie in simulating the experience of scarcity. I do this incidentally once a year when I visit my in-laws in India, where I learn to live with water shortages and power cuts, even in a relatively developed and affluent part of one of their main cities, Bangalore.

My main point was that our perception of waste is relative to our experience of scarcity

Now that I have a little more time than I did on air, here are some of the things that weren’t mentioned.

  • The report itself, by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers: Global Food: Waste Not, Want not is excellent and well worth a read.
  • The problem is global, multifaceted and systemic. It’s not just about the behaviour of people in the developed world, or indeed supermarket offers. The problem includes regulation, the storage and transport of food, irregular harvests, and much else besides.
  • The headlines said we waste half our food, but that’s a bit overblown. In the report they say the estimate is that we waste between 30-50% of our food.
  • When Evan Davis told his bear story, I wish I had said: “Humans are animals, but we are not bears, and unlike bears we have a moral responsibility towards the rest of our species and the planet as a whole.”

Spending money on sales is still spending, not saving.

  • There are lots of behavioural/psychological issues that are important, including:
  • Spending money on sales is still spending, not saving.
  • Anticipated regret- the tendency to do something now in case we regret not having had done it at a future point – is relevant in three ways; 1) We want to stockpile food in case we run out 2)We want to buy the sale items in case we don’t get another such offer 3)We trust the sell-buy date more than our own senses.
  • Is there a place for smaller shopping trolleys? Given the evidence that we tend to eat and buy less/more depending on the size of the recepticle, it seems intuitive that we might buy and waste less if we had smaller spaces to fill.
  • There are many more dimensions to this problem, and an excellent overview, including a detailed breakdown of the reasons we waste food can be found (in a table!) here:
  • A small but particularly painful part of the problem is that we don’t seem to know what to do with our food items, or our leftovers so…
  • Should we placed renewed educational emphasis on home economics?
  • No?
  • Sounds absurd given the scale of the challenge?
  • Then what should we do?
  • Where should we start?





Showing some civic heart

December 4, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

Here in the Fellowship department we are very keen to forge partnerships with organisations that share similar values to our own, the overall idea being that through mutual collaboration we can make a much bigger impact. Recently, our thinking has turned to how we can open up the expertise within our network of Fellows to a younger audience.

Since the summer we have been working with an organisation called Student Hubs to develop a partnership which will bring together the collective expertise, enthusiasm and ideas of RSA Fellows and Student Hubs participants.  Working across the UK, Student Hubs seeks to transform student involvement in social action. They act as a catalyst, empowering students to become active members of their community by promoting social action, social entrepreneurship and citizenship.

As with all of our Fellowship partnerships, by collaborating with like-minded organisations we hope to reach out to new audiences – making a bigger impact and helping our partners to do the same.   With the support of Social Enterprise Berkshire’s Tony Davis FRSA, we held our our first joint event in Oxford two weeks ago, where students from the Oxford Hub met with RSA Fellows for an evening workshop to brainstorm ways to use Oxford’s empty shops to address a social need.

Be it youth unemployment, sustainable food production or community isolation, people came armed with ideas and possible solutions…

Set in the amazing Turl Street Kitchen (Oxford Hub and Student Hubs HQ), the event had a dual purpose: to introduce social enterprise by thinking about how we could use empty spaces for social good, and to encourage a mix of ideas and collaboration between different generations.

And this is what happened (click to enlarge)…

Great conversations made for some great ideas!  But where can we go from here?  Well, Student Hubs offers access to a range of funding bodies to support new ideas, and of course RSA Fellowship provides access to small grants through the Catalyst fund and the expertise of Fellows through the SkillsBank. The RSA South Central region is also launching a pop-up shop advice line for Fellows and RSA friends who want to know how to go about taking their ideas forward – get in touch with Alice Dyke, Regional Programme Manager at the RSA, for more information.

Next up…

We’re hoping to run similar events and initiatives with Student Hubs in 2013 – so watch this space!  Student Hubs are based in universities across England such as Southampton,  Bristol and Cambridge – if you live in one of these areas and want to get involved get in touch with Amy Anderson, Oxford Hub Manager.

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We’re always happy to hear about potential opportunities for collaboration and partnership at the RSA – if you’d like to find out more, please contact our Partnership Development Co-ordinator, Jo Painter.

For more pictures from this and other RSA events,  join the RSA Flickr group.

Waste Not, Want Not?

November 16, 2011 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

I never really understood the expression/idiom/injunction ‘waste not, want not’.

On the face of it, it seems to say: if you don’t waste it you don’t want it…

But obviously that’s not the real message. The idea is that if you waste something, you are implicitly saying you don’t want it. So if you waste food, water, energy, and time what are you saying? That somehow these things don’t matter to you?

No. You’re saying that you don’t think they are scarce resources.

Which is not the case.

All of these things are hugely important and increasingly scarce, it’s just that most of the people we know, and those reading this blog (I’m guessing) live in such a way that we don’t feel the pinch of that scarcity.

That perspective may change if we found ourselves identifying with somebody starving, dying from a disease caused by lack of access to fresh water, migrating from a small island that will soon go under due to rising sea levels, or just told they have a terminal disease(other than life)….If only we felt ‘as one’ with such people, we might be aware of the scarcity and waste less of the precious resources that such people may die for want of.

Perhaps the world is getting a bit smaller in this sense. Jeremy Rifkind  seems to argue as much i.e. that our circles of empathy are expanding, and the suffering of ‘others’ is beginning to feel more like our problem, because those others are ‘closer’ due to social media and travel, and therefore closer to us emotionally too.

Perhaps. I still think there is a role for experience here. I suspect you only real ‘get’ the tragedy of waste when you really feel the pinch of scarcity at the level of personal experience…

Indeed these thoughts were prompted by reading a good news story in The Independent that says we are wasting much less food than we used to. We are still wasting far more than we need to, and there is massive scope for improvement, but it seems when we felt the pinch- when money was tight and couldn’t be wasted, we didn’t let invisible vegetables languish in the invisible parts of our fridge, or have one spoon of humous before throwing the rest out uneaten a week later.

I am not sure whether I have a point here- but does this suggest that the experience of scarcity may be an important part of behaviour change strategies to reduce waste? If so, how do we go about it- can we simulate scarcity to help us waste less of the precious resources we are (for now) lucky enough to have?