News from the front desk #389: How depressing it would be to live on $17 a day after accommodation expenses, in not very salubrious housing at that. To be newly married and need to live in a room in a share house, to not afford to buy anything beyond the cheapest groceries and never new clothes or a holiday. 

We live in a capitalist society where you are expected to work hard and be rewarded, but what if you work hard and are not rewarded? If you are homeless how do you find the kick and bubble to convince an employer to hire you? Bosses want additionality in their productivity, not a person on a downward spiral who might be a drain on resources.

Yet in this country Newstart allowances, the dole, has not been increased in 24 years, not even to keep pace with inflation. The latest federal budget ignored the momentum of support to increase it. Why? Why are we punishing people for being unable to hold down a job?

There will always be a certain percentage of people who are different from the mainstream – who are disadvantaged. They may be going through a temporary period of emotional or physical crisis; they may have mental issues or have very low education or skills and who simply don’t fit the mainstream. 

Without some form of basic material existence, or a sense they have a chance to fit in and forge a fruitful life, they might be more tempted to turn to crime, or self harm. Either way government coffers – we the people – will eventually pay the cost of this in one way or another. And the cost will always be greater than early intervention.

In any natural population, it’s a fact of life – a matter of physical distribution on the bell curve – that some people will be at the top through no particular merit of their own, and others at the bottom, likewise through no particular merit of their own.

Imagine life without a loving and supportive family, not afraid to impose boundaries, especially during the turbulent adolescent years when the hormones are rampant. Around you might be only negative influences: entrenched unemployment, alcohol or drug use and other antisocial habits. We’ve learnt through urban planning that the very nature of our street designs and vast shopping centres that kill local stores and force people into cars, lead to poor health outcomes.  

In recent weeks we read that Woolworths Plumpton in outer Sydney has learnt “not to mess with its customers’ love of Doritos”. In hipster areas, Woolies stocks healthier foods. Check out the important work last year by University of Sydney student magazine Honi Soiton Sydney’s fault lines that they called The Red Rooster line, dividing Sydney into multiple good and bad food options.

Often, not always, our personal outcomes depend on where we are born and to whom. Sometimes a middle class teenager might snap back at their parents that they are handicapped because they have had it too good; they didn’t have the need to develop grit and determination to break out of poverty or other challenges. 

Determination and hard grit can be a powerful engine with which to carve out a better life than the one you are given. But not everyone is lucky enough to be born with the right gene, or meet a lucky mentor. 

Keeping those things in mind might help when thinking about how we deal with Newstart or other social issues.

A certain generosity of spirit will yield benefits beyond the immediate. But the benefits are not encased in a neat double entry ledger. There’s a credit column, but it’s messy and unspecified, and often not at all in proportion to the debit side. But it’s there.

Do something good and the first hit is the instant kicker of knowing you are a better person. Next, the more ephemeral rewards that come from putting yourself in a positive feedback loop.

The final reward, a gift that can be totally unexpected, is that it’s easier to live this way. You don’t have to do a quick calculation of whether the beggar on the street is deserving or not. You don’t even have to think about it.

You just know “it’s the right thing to do” to drop a coin in the hat. 

Add in transparency and it’s even easier. Nothing to hide. How nice, how easy.

Sustainability requires and thrives on the same generosity of spirit

In the same way we need to think holistically about Newstart and understand the cost of notdipping in with early intervention – think sluggish economy and health costs – we need to think holistically about climate and sustainability. Thinking “holistically” requires a certain messing up of the orderly double-entry ledger and a view to the big picture where you may to view and recognise the lumpiness of the payback.

What’s key is to take a frame that is away from the tunnel vision of “what’s in it for me now?”

Sure you can save money by investing in solar hot water, and timber offices or net zero buildings will create instant brand benefits that will have tenants flocking to your site, but it will also add to the virtuous circle of influencing your social/economic patch to go the same way. We are social animals. Before long. you may notice your patch is a much nicer, friendlier and cleaner.

Over the longer run the messy generosity ledger will show up with even bigger rewards if you don’t have to triage and mop up as much climate damage as otherwise.

It’s this kind of thinking we’ve learnt from the amazing people who lead sustainability, who’ve demonstrated these philosophies by their actions and strategies and who’ve been generous enough share their thoughts and feelings in interviews and long, rambling chats.

And always these are humble people who point to others as the heroes, who want the best for the many and even the whole.

And what’s all of this got to do with saving the planet? 

Well, as usual, you need to ask the right question, or question the questioner, before you venture onto answers: ask, save the planet for whom, or for what?

Think about the Dr Who episode where the doctor lands on a planet with no humans but a brilliantly efficient economy and excellent ecology – plants all healthy and intact. Actually the planet is run by machines (AI?).

The team soon discovers that the humans have been deemed by the machines as unproductive, inefficient, unreliable, emotional, prone to periodic failures of judgement, whole life periods in late teens or at random other times when their mental state is unstable and self-obsessed.  

So what do the machines do? Their number one objective is to make sure the planet’s economy is as efficient, productive and rich as possible. They soon work out that humans are perfect for mulch and a brilliant feedstock for plants and ecology as a whole. And that this is humanity’s highest and best use.

So let’s remember generosity of spirit, always. And stop AI overtaking over our humanity.

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