Barbarians at the gate: The modern-day slayer of cities

“We used to build civilizations. Now we build shopping malls”

Bill Bryson

I remember going down to the market with my Dad on a Sunday morning. It was an exciting atmosphere. Glorious smells filled my nose. Too many interesting and colourful things to see. A hubbub of noise bubbled through my ears as stall owners haggled over a fair price with their customers. Still a vivid and wonderful childhood memory.

The contrast between the faces of the stall owners of my childhood and the checkout staff at the supermarket could not be more apparent. The smiles and cheeky jibes have been replaced by the sullen stare and pained courtesy of the minimum wage labourer.

For much of our history the market place in our cities have been the heart of community life. On occasion where a foreign army threatened a town locals manned the walls to protect their mother city and repel the invader. To fail was to let the city fall. Once the marauding army moved on whatever population that was left began the long task of rebreathing life into the dying city.

Foreign armies at the gates is still a threat, but more recently the killer of cities, as Jane Jacobs points out in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, are now the developers of big box retail, malls and supermarkets. These monstrous city slayers drive down life, destroy meaningful occupations and have become atherosclerosis in the heart of our towns and villages. The individuality, variability and good service provided by a myriad of small business owners has been replaced with unappealing uniformity. Mall after mall in town after town have become carbon copies. Our shopping experience has become very boring. The small high street trader can no longer compete with these giant siege machines. Jobs  that were once personal, fulfilling and profitable have been replaced with low paid repetitive, low skilled McJobs.

Many of those small family owned shops used to fulfill other important community functions. These shops were (and still are if you can find them) the club house of sub-culture. Cyclists, skaters, musicians, and artists loiter at the independent bringing with them a richness and energy that well never be found in aisle G at K-mart.

Supermarkets and big box retailers are warehouses yet they charge us retail prices. The irony of they system is that many workers need never leave the supermarket. They are paid so little for their efforts and the prices so high that the must quite literally pump their wages back into the supermarket that has just paid them in order to eat. Where can they afford to live on what is left? Better to pull double shifts and try to sleep in the staffroom.

Megabox retailers drive traffic growth making our streets more dangerous. They also drive terrible environmental practices and conditions on food producers and farmers. They market heavily and litigate forcefully so that we continue to embrace their expansion.  If you are saying to yourself, ‘what’s wrong with a supermarket?’ click here. I find it very strange that civic planners will let supermarkets replace entire city blocks, but they won’t allow someone to build their own small  (nano, yurt, strawbale or tree) house themselves.

Okay this has been a very negative critique of megabox retail and gocery stores so far. More negative than I like to be, but it all has a happy ending trust me.

So what is one to do when the mega store is omnipresent, convenient and highly persuasive?

1 ) Harbour the view that shopping is corrosive and enfeebling

I wish to have a happy life that makes a positive difference. To do this I must have enough money to escape money. This can only be achieved if I save my money and spend only on low harm goods. The typical view of the saver is of delayed gratification and of missing out. My view is completely different. I view shopping as an admission of my own personal incompetence. I must shop (therefore I must work and am not free) when I can’t grow, make, create or discover a solution myself. When I am in the mood to admit incompetence (which as my friends will tell you should be far more regularly given my numerous failed craftings) I prefer to admit that the local boot maker is a better shoe repairer than me. I can confidently say that we are both infinitely more capable and interested in fixing my shoes than the Super Shoe Mart employee who will be fixing my soles for $7 an hour.

2) Stop financing slayers of cities and instead fund the wonderful independent business that are more than just stores.

Shop small. Shop local. Help break the monopoly of faceless corporations. As local merchants return they will pay us dividends by providing interesting jobs and caring employers, they will treat us as individuals, they will give us discounts because we are friends, they will sponsor and help fund our children’s sporting adventures and they will give us back our meeting houses and community hubs.

3) Grow a garden and buy in bulk

If you are buying from a warehouse, you may as well benefit from paying warehouse prices by shopping with wholesalers. Some wholesalers sell minimum quantities that are too big for one family. Think 50 kg of brown rice. The neat solution is to form a cooperative with you neighbours and shop collectively. Doing so provides opportunity for friendship. It also enables you to produce meals for cents instead of dollars.

You will never see me with a placard throwing stones and protesting the development of a ghastly over fat shopping mall.

Instead, if you are looking for me come to the cobbler’s. We’ll be there drinking coffee together and talking about life.

Natural Gas…excuse me…

“You’d be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap!”
Dolly Parton

Our cabin is fuelled by a combination of natural gas and some electricity. I’ve previously discussed our thoughts on generating the little bit of electricity that we need.

Like electricity, our gas bill is comprised of a fixed line charge = $30 per month and a variable charge based on the gas that we use. After several months of monitoring this it became clear that our variable charge is very low. Around $5 per month. We only use gas for cooking and our gas usage is less than 14% of our monthly gas bill. This tells me that we are paying too much for line charges.

Refilling a 9 kg gas cylinder costs around $28  so I decided to experiment by unhooking from mains gas and setting up two cylinders connected directly to our house. We discontinued our gas utility bill and monitored the difference for just short on 3 years.  It has saved money because now we only pay for the gas that we use. We no longer have to pay a bill for gas when we go on holiday for a month.

Our annual gas bill has gone from $420-$550 per year to $56 for refills of the cylinders. The refills actually lasts us for about 14 months. So it is costing us an average of $48 per year (an 87% saving!). Sure there is a bit more of a hassle filling the bottle. I think I have mentioned previously that our cabin is about 250 steps (stairs not strides) from the street, but it’s only two bottles (18kgs) over 12 months so I think I can handle it [Ms Simple: what a hero!].

We always have the option of reconnecting mains gas, but frankly if we are saving 87% on our bill why the heck would we?

You can buy happiness (and it’s cheap like the Budgie!)

“Happiness often sneaks in through a door you didn’t know you left open”
John Barrymore

I believe that the purpose of life is to find happiness. It’s a topic that I have read widely on and while the recipe for happiness eludes many of us, one thing is clear. Strangely or not happiness and money don’t appear to be tightly coupled. That is to say that you can buy some happiness, but not as much as you might think!

Initially the link between money and happiness is very strong, but once we have enough to meet our basic needs (food, shelter, and well-being)  then more money does not appear to bring with it greater happiness.

A classic observation into the relationship between income and happiness has also found that growth in GDP does not corresponded very well to increases in self reported happiness. People living in wealthy countries are no happier than people living in poor countries. In fact some of the happiest populations are found in the middle of the GDP pack. If you are interested in this phenomenon look up the Easterlin Paradox.

Money can buy a little bit of happiness. I like to think of this as the foundations of happiness or the happiness that comes from being safe, clean and free from hunger. The question is exactly how much do we need to earn to pay for this foundation?  There are a lot of estimates. US$13,000 seems to be a commonly agreed figure, but it really depends on where you live. If you live in rural India then this figure is way too high. If you live in Manhattan it might be too low. It’s a basic estimate for a life in a developed Western nation.

A good heuristic is that it should be about 1 days worth of full time work per week if you live in the West. It takes me about one and a bit days per week at my McJob to earn enough to pay for the foundations of happiness for my family. Because I believe that being happy is the main purpose of my life the good news I can chose to knock off if I like. This leaves five to six days a week of idle leisure time for napping and nappy changing.  I could work more and earn more, but I shouldn’t expect that this would make me happier. In fact a higher income might just backfire and make me less happy.

Choosing to only work part-time has happiness dividends. The amount of leisure time one has seems to better explain variance in happiness than level of income, wealth or social status. So the opportunity cost of more working might just be the erosion of whatever additional happiness you have built on your foundations.

It has been reported that people who manage to buy their freedom from negative experiences (say their McJob) tend to be a lot happier than people who remain trapped in an endless cycle of a repetitive negative experience. This explains why many people won’t find happiness working more. It also explains why people are prepared to work overtime to pay a maid to clean their squalid hovel or a gardener to tug out the gorse and thistles that have taken over their yard while they are at work.

The other things that can help to increase happiness is mindfulness or living more in the present. Our tendency is to live in the future. Planning, worrying, and generally making ourselves anxious about how we will control future events so that they pan out how we want (I believe this is largely pointless. Focusing on these types of thoughts gives them the compost to grow. But that is a whole other blog…). Other unfortunates seem to live entirely in a traumatic past. Being history focused can be pleasant if we recall enjoyable memories, but too often we are overly focused on negative experiences that put us into states of guilt.  Living more of your life in the moment will free you from worry and guilt leaving more space and time to foster happiness.

The last factor that has been linked to happiness is where we place our attention. Simply are you focused on you or are you aware of and acutely focused on the concerns and needs of others? Being more compassionate and giving appears to be a precursor to happiness. Try to forget yourself and your own messed up issues and start living with and for others.

Our self image is umm… just an image. A mental representation. No more real or tangible than any other thought or emotion that floods through out consciousness. I think of the self as a visceral flavour that we overlay on all of our experiences. Like the flavour raspberry, the self is hard to explain in words, but once you taste raspberry on it’s own you can detect it’s presence in everything you eat. By discovering the ‘raspberry’ you become free to choose to cook without accidentally adding red syrup. This is how you become free to enjoy cooking without worrying about who it is that is cooking. You just cook and be.  My friend describes it like this – ‘one day I woke up and just got over myself…you know?’. Couldn’t put it simpler myself!

To sum up, don’t feel bad about pulling your next sickie from work. You need that day. Happiness can’t be shelved until you are ready to enjoy it. Try a sick day giveaway. If it would stress you out too much to dodge work then why not add a friendship Friday this week. Give your time, money (small gifts) and attention to other people. Take stock at the end and reflect on how you felt. A simple test is to score how happy you were on Thursday on a scale of 1 to 10 and compare your score for Friday.

If you want more money then work more. Just don’t expect to discover happiness lurking in the 3rd drawer of your office filing cabinet.  If you’d like to be happier, slow down, work less, play more, enjoy now, forget yourself and be giving. The foundations of happiness are cheap. The best compost is friendship and good Ale.

An idle thought…


Consuming more and more every year is wasteful and destructive.

It is corrosive and enfeebling.

Vainglorious corporations gleefully sell us back the skills we have lost.

We are indebted buying fancy babbles that tether us to jobs that we don’t like.

Our happiness is deferred. To be enjoyed by our future selves, but life moves fast.

Blink and you can miss it.

This moment is your life.

The next one is not guaranteed.

Give future you a gift.

Relax. Be idle.

Take back your freedom.

Live simply.

Enjoy yourself right now. Live free.

The lunacy of transport: Check yourself out of the asylum and save 20% of your household income immediately

“We’re borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the future of human civilization. Every bit of that has to change.”

Al Gore

Have you ever stopped for a moment to consider how mad our transportation system has become?

To avoid walking, which is actually very pleasant and extremely good for our health, we have entirely redesigned our cities to accommodate vehicles. The skeletons of ancient cities, that formed 10,000 years ago, have been stretched and clawed at to get more traffic lanes. The transformation in many places is so extreme that pedestrians (people) have almost no right to move about self propelled. Much of what was great about cities for two hundred years before the vehicle has now been covered over with tarmac. Lost forever to acres of car storage.

We churn the ground to produce minerals and drill the seas for a chemical that we turn into cars, roads and fuel. These raw materials and commodities are transported from thousands of miles away, at horrendous financial, social and environmental costs so that we need not walk one single mile to work on a sunny pleasant day.

While cars used to be a cheap personal technology this is no longer the case. We pay about 20% of our income for the privilege of spending a quarter of our waking life stuck in traffic. Each year we pay more and more money to go nowhere. It is undeniable that cars are extremely efficient if you want to go long distances to places that nobody else wants to go to. However, almost always we want to go to places that everyone else wants to go at the same time. For these types of trips cars are hopelessly inefficient. Result: gridlock for everyone.

Transportation research has shown that despite spending billions of dollars over three decades improving transport infrastructure to reduce travel times in the UK, travel times are now slower in main centres than  they were 100 years ago when a horse pulled the cart. This finding holds for many major cities around the world.

The hard to fathom aspect is that although we can’t really get anywhere easily or cheaply anymore we still love our cars. It’s not that unusual for a three person family to own four cars. More unusual – we love our cars so much that we accept that millions of otherwise healthy people will be annihilated just so we don’t have to raise our heart rate to a level that could prolong our own lives. Road fatalities are collateral damage that is out of sight, out of mind until our own families are touched directly by road trauma. Even when this happens we accept the loss of our loved ones because it is ‘normal’. [I don’t accept that normal is right. You can get used to some pretty weird shit if you live in a circus!]

Another very sad study on quality of life of older persons has also reported that the majority of persons over 65 years of age that were surveyed would prefer to lose the use of their legs rather than lose their licence. Think about that for a minute.

There is no need to touch on the unnecessary pollution and public health problems caused by our heavy car use. Any five year old can tell you in detail. However, I would like to point out one form of pollution that escapes our gaze. That of space pollution. Cars are very large objects and these objects need to be stored somewhere for an average of 23 hours every day. That sounds wrong until you factor in weekends and days when you don’t use your car at all.

Cars use is horrendously expensive. In many places you will spend around one fifth of your take home net income on maintaining and operating your car.  This doesn’t include the tax taken by the Government to provide new roads and motorways. Let’s assume you have a 2-hour commute each way to work on weekdays. That is a full 20% of your income to use your car only 11% per week.

Twenty hours of time is a lot of life each week. If you had a job closer to home or if you made yourself a home  job using the internet and technology you would recover quite a bit of travel life that you can reallocate to more interesting pursuits.  Alternatively in 2 hours you could travel up to 45 miles on a bike or walk 8 to 10 miles and the cost is basically free. Aside from saving another 20% of your income you’d probably experience improved health, good mood, and a little weight loss. This on top of reducing your pollution and being more civic minded. By civic minded I mean that you have donated freeway space to people that need it more than you (e.g. ambulances, elderly, disabled, mothers with infants and so on).

In a nutshell…motorised transport costs too much. It isn’t easy to get where you want to go. Our cities are turning into giant car parks to store unused vehicles. We are dying in the millions as fragile humans are rundown by a tonne of steel. We are dying because of lifestyle diseases caused by sitting behind the wheel too much. We are also dying because we are sucking down vehicle fumes instead of air. We are highly dependent on cars to the point that we would trade in the legs that have withered from a lifetime of disuse. We are extracting a precious non-renewable commodity at record rates. We are heating up our planet. All to avoid an enjoyable activity – walking?

This is mad on any level you consider.

My advice – check yourself out of the asylum whenever you want!

It is very easy to walk or bike. Here are a few tips that might be helpful in your new life as an outpatient:

  1. You don’t need to make every trip active. It’s okay to keep using your car some of the time.
  2. You could move and live closer to where you work to make the commute on foot or by bike more manageable.
  3. You could move to a more walkable neighbourhood (or you could start a walkable neighbourhoood community group and advocate to your council to improve bike lanes and sidewalks)
  4. There are will be more direct or better routes by bike or on foot. When you start out you won’t know about these shortcuts so you’ll end up riding the same route that you drive. Look out for travel information maps from your city, transportation department  or bike or walk advocacy group. If you see another cyclist  on your commute ask them about bike shortcuts.
  5. Consider moving to a city that is more bike and walk friendly. Give up your car completely and pocket 1/5 of your income.
  6. Walk or ride with a buddy. It’s way more fun.
  7. Don’t spend much on your commuter bike. Get a helmet and a good lock. Panniers are a good idea. Much better than a backpack on your back. Get a good pair of bike shorts. Comfort comes from the seat of your pants not your bike seat. There are a lot of companies that make baggy bike shorts so you don’t need to literally hang out in Lycra.
  8. Learn how to fix a flat tire and do basic mechanical work on your bike. Most bike shops will have a cheap or free class available.
  9. See if your work would consider installing a shower or bike lockup. Some cities will help subsidize businesses to do this. If you don’t have a shower no sweat. Give yourself more time and ride at a leisurely pace.
  10. Take an on-road skills course before you start to ride to work. This will help you to ride safely in traffic. If a course is available free in your area your local bike shop will know about it. If it costs money then pay for it. It will be worth every penny.

Some other suggestions to save money on transport: downsize your car, work from home, ride share your car to work, reduce the number of cars you own and maintain, consider a moped or highly efficient vehicle (electric or hybrid), ride the rails or use the bus or one of my favourites – tRUNsportation (running for transport)!

Your transport costs are probably way too high. Review your travel options and see if you can save time on your commute, while saving money, while saving the planet, while saving lives, while saving health costs, while saving precious materials for future generations…

Straddle the saddle of the pollution solution and save yourself while you save the world.

Its the only sane thing to do.