Park Bench Tales and other writings

Thoughts and writings reflecting the poet within and the activist

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Wealth and Value: Obstacles to environmental awareness

We have been standing at a crossroads now for at least a decade, attempting to decide how our future can be secured by taking action to mitigate climate change, promote sustainability and greatly increase resilience in communities. Each time leaders, and their vast entourages, jet across the globe and meet to discuss issues they inevitably finish by standing at the same point at the crossroads, perhaps shuffling their feet a little. The issues are often seen as a clash between scientists and environmentalists in the green corner, and politicians, corporations and industry in the yellow corner. Such a simplification appeals to the media, who can then run their features on climate denial, the doomsday scenarios, and talk about our dependence on fossil fuels. Such coverage is to be expected, the media are simply reflecting what is often discussed.

I would like to suggest that the failure to make progress at these talks is because we have a conflict of a different nature which has colored and influenced the way in which the leaders, and their entourages, are behaving. This clash is between the cultures that place great importance on wealth and the cultures that place a greater importance on values. At present the wealth culture still holds the floor. Let me explain how this conflict works.

The common use of the term ‘wealth’ relates to an abundance of possessions or money; students are often told that we measure wealth in terms of the total value of all the assets that we own. The latter suggests we need a means of measuring, a unit to measure ‘wealth’ and that unit is currency. So, more than likely you were educated with the idea that we could measure wealth in terms of dollars, sterling, euros or some other currency. A second definition relates wealth simply to an abundance of ‘things’, which tends to lead to thinking in terms of the accumulation of money, some material resource or objects. We then progress to trying to convince students that an important activity, and an important purpose in their lives, will be to accumulate wealth. Sometimes we are a little more truthful and teach that a business has the accumulation of wealth and growth as objectives, so that the wealth can then be distributed in some way to owners and in particular to shareholders. In practice less than 10% of a population in a developed country actually accumulates any significant wealth, but we still pretend everyone can achieve this level.

In contrast to wealth there is an alternative approach where the importance, the usefulness or the worth of something is considered of value. Our behavior reflects the values that we hold to be important, our judgements on what we consider to be important to life. Value cannot be measured in the same way of wealth, and value cannot be accumulated in the way that wealth can be accumulated. Environmental activists will place a high value on biodiversity, on keeping rain forests, looking after the countryside, on having clean air and unpolluted rivers, and many other areas. Sociologists will place value on stable and happy communities, all of us will place a value on good health. Many scientists now place a high value on resilience, the capacity of a community to cope with change.

We can see how these differing viewpoints impact on action by considering how decisions are taken in any number of areas, but I will just focus briefly on the issue of fracking for shale gas. If your aim is to create wealth then your view is very different from those whose values relate more closely to the environment. Shale gas is seen as a resource that represents wealth potential. Extracting as much as possible, at the cheapest cost, and selling it for the highest price, is achieved by putting monetary amounts to any phase. Costs of exploration and extraction can be high, so obtaining subsidy in the form of tax breaks is important. The use of technology to reduce labor costs is important, achieving a guaranteed minimum price and a guaranteed sale of volumes are both important. The potential damage to housing, local business and landscape are seen in monetary terms as compensation. Advocates of fracking are encouraged to support the idea by referring to cheap energy, to high returns on investment, and to oppose ideas such as limiting of CO2 emissions. Large amounts of money are spent on propaganda designed to convince the public of a ‘need’ for fracking.

In contrast to this approach are those that relate to values. A home owner will see the intrusion as affecting the quality of life. Looking out over woodland contrasts greatly with the view over a flaring well, bringing noise, potential pollution and visual degradation. The destruction of a woodland reduces diversity. Those who believe emissions of greenhouse gases can be controlled by using other sources of energy place a value on the environment in a global sense, they go beyond any disadvantages to a local community. Many will argue that the energy could be obtained from renewables, such as wind or solar. Those concerned about resilience will look at potential risk from contamination, whether a community can withstand the changes, the reduction of water supplies for domestic and agricultural use.

Is there a meeting point between these apparently opposing viewpoints? There should be, if the issue is merely that of energy supply then it makes no sense to exhaust a limited resource when a natural renewable resource is readily available. The ‘cost’ attached to both the fossil and renewable resources are determined in part by scale, in part by any subsidy or tax relief. Shifting or even removing subsidies to level the playing field could have an impact, but would it really solve a deeper problem?

The ‘value’ camp sees not only fossil fuels, but also nuclear energy as a threat, but if energy demand is considered over a longer period then the replacement of fossil fuels for automotive fuel poses a real problem if increased demand is to be met from increased production of electrical energy. The ‘value’ camp also advocates organic farming, but often has no real voice that expresses an opinion on population control, a subject considered too controversial by many.

The ‘wealth’ camp sees only opportunity to make profit and achieve growth over short periods of time, accepting the resource might be depleted in less than thirty years or so. Paying for environmental or social damage is considered as something that reduces profit.

There seems no clear answer to these divisions unless we are prepared to allow education a free hand to provide students with better information for decision making. Asset-led wealth is founded on ideas that form a part of modern economics. Goods produced and sold for a profit, the importance of increased demand for growth, the lowering of labor costs for increased competitiveness, the increase in demand which cam be filled by increase in population, or by redundancy of goods and replacement with new models at increasing frequency. Alongside this is an alternative view, depletion of resources, degradation of environment, overpopulation, and a cycle of waste. Students need to be aware of the two faces of a market led economy, and both should be a part of the curriculum for business and economics courses.

The cultural stance considers values, sees the benefits of ecosystems in cities, the value of play spaces, the importance of trees, of color from plants, of walking paths in the country, of picnics in the parks, outdoor concerts, and encouraging biodiversity. At this point all seems fine, even the Victorians knew the value of parks and green spaces in growing cities. The longer term values of the environment considers effects on climate, on land, on the oceans, considers likely change over decades and even centuries. Energy sources are seen in terms of renewables, resource use in terms of recycling and sustainability. Only a small part of this thinking finds a way into any curriculum and that reflects the dominance of the ‘wealth’ viewpoint.

Climate change and potential damage are slowly surfacing in science courses, a welcome sign over the last decade, but the voice is weak for the same reason that the cultural voice is weak and the wealth voice is strong, the same reason that ensures little real progress is ever made at global summits. The difference between wealth and values as approaches also includes a time factor. The desire for wealth is immediate, a desire for satisfaction that is immediate, wealth is thought of as something to be acquired within a generation. As such, wealth is only occasionally considered over a longer period. The changes needed for climate change mitigation require investment now, but the real benefits will be for future generations, something that conflicts with how wealth is perceived as something which is to be obtained immediately.

Planning for future generations, investing now for future generations is more closely related to the ‘values’ camp and this illustrates something that is really missing from our curriculum today. We need to educate students about values, need to get them to discuss what they perceive as values they hold to be important for themselves and for others, values that will provide for future generations, values that will look after the planet, maintain diversity, reduce extinction rates. If the view that wealth is the most important aspect of life is allowed to dominate at the expense of values that benefit the species and the planet in the long term then scientists may well be right; the human species could well be casualty of the current mass extinction event.