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Archive for July, 2013

I was watching an old Big Bang Theory episode the other day; it was the one where Penny buys Sheldon and Leonard (Star Trek enthusiasts) a Spock Transporter each from the comic book store.

Penny wants to open them up and play with them, which stuns the boys; Leonard says, ‘Once you open the box, it loses its value.’ (Watch the 2 minute clip here)

Here, Sheldon and Leonard realise that things don’t always have a ‘use’ value in the traditional sense of consuming them. They recognise that the toys have an embedded value in leaving them in the box untouched i.e. mint in box. Neither of them may even consider selling them in the future, despite the toys being ‘worth’ more.

Instead, they enjoy looking at them in their pristine condition (a non-consumptive direct use value) and, also, may want to pass them on to their children – if Sheldon knows how to make a child – or donate them to a museum so that others can see them in their original state (a bequest value).

Perhaps, then, we can learn something from comic book enthusiasts and apply their ‘mint in box’ mentality to the environment. Policy-makers now take into account these direct and indirect use and non-use values into project appraisal by considering a project’s total economic value.

People wouldn’t pay as much to visit Yosemite National Park if it wasn’t kept looking beautiful, as they would not derive as much value. Therefore, it makes sense to keep it looking beautiful (see picture below).

Another non-consumptive direct use value that can be compared to the Big Bang Theory example would be improving bathing water standards. People don’t go to beaches to drink the sea water, which would be a consumptive use value. Instead, they derive value from playing in the water. If the water is not safe, then people cannot play in it; therefore there is a benefit (amongst many others) from improving it that doesn’t have a market price.

Later on in the episode, Spock comes to Sheldon in a dream and asks him what the purpose of a toy is. Sheldon replies by saying, ‘to be played with’ and thus comes to the conclusion to open it and play with it. Therefore, we need to think about what the purpose of the environment is before making decisions to change it.

The herd has done some head-scratching over this topic, and we would appreciate your input- do you agree or disagree, can you think of other analogies?

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Listening to Martin Wolf and Ed Balls talk about case for making UK infrastructure investment environmentally friendly at the Green Alliance summer event, the focus was all on carbon. Low-carbon investments make up 70% of the Treasury’s pipeline of infrastructure projects. And its not just large scale, apparently small scale PV made up 14% of the UK installed capacity in 2011, thanks to home installations.

 However, there are barriers to getting this done, like the constraint on the green investment bank borrowing money on financial markets until the UK meets certain debt targets – targets that are now due to be met further into the future (2017) than originally planned (2015), leaving the bank impaired. So this green infrastructure may not be coming as soon or fast as it should.

But there’s another green infrastructure: The real green infrastructure is the network of natural habitats and ecosystems that provide a functioning environment for people to live in. They buffer us from floods, absorb pollutants and dissipate heat. This meaning of green infrastructure, and the issues it captures remain absent from the political debate.

We shouldn’t give up hope that this can change. Ed Ball’s noted how green politics had changed over the last decade, with business and NGOs now both arguing for more certainty behind environmental targets. The argument for all forms of green infrastructure still needs to be made.

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We are in a global race….. at least if David Cameron’s twitter feed is anything to go by. We must pick up the pace, run, run, run, and to the winner the spoils.

It may seem a flippant metaphor. The problem is that it is complete nonsense, dangerous nonsense.

I will leave an explanation of the dire economic thinking to the IEA.   I will turn to the implications.

A race is a panic. An aggressive, exhausting panic. So dig deep and feel the burn, pick up the pace (I think the ‘pace’ is GDP but I am not sure how far they have thought through the metaphor).

Keep running, the 2015 election is in sight, that’s the finish line….wait we have to keep going…and going….what do you mean never stop? Wish I hadn’t chucked my water away….at least the sponsors will pay up…what no sponsors..

We are not in a race, economies are not zero sum games, your loss is not my gain. Most importantly there isn’t a finish line. We need to be making policies which aren’t going to compromise the quality of life  (within certain limits) of any person 50 or 500 years down the line, no matter if they fit neatly within our national borders.  We are not doing this at the moment, and a fixation on our pace of growth damages us and the next generations.

We need to grow right and some question if at all. But while the political and financial system is wedded to narrow indexes of prosperity and this rhetoric, this may be a race we wish we hadn’t entered.

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Lately, I can be found in my lunch hour to be taking a break from environmental economics and exploring the literature of the Beat Generation. In the last 8 weeks I have finished 8 books by Jack Kerouac, whose descriptions of solitude and self-discovery have left me contemplating my own relationship with tranquility and what exactly produces it. I now find myself on an uncertain road having just finished university, and I seek tranquility to help me come to terms with this fact, whilst also using it to fuel my own reading and writing hobbies.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) has created a national tranquility map, making it possible to assess the likelihood of finding tranquility in the UK. The CPRE’s tranquility map is made up of layers of information based on what people say adds to and detracts from finding tranquility. Surveys were used to determine what tranquility means to people, and the different factors which determine ‘tranquility’. For example, the top survey responses to defining tranquility include seeing a natural landscape, hearing birdsong (as we discovered at envecon 2013 this year) and seeing the sea.

The search for tranquility is why 49% of us visit the countryside, according to the same survey. In fact, many people in the UK pay hundreds and even thousands of pounds to escape on holiday and to find tranquility. I have enjoyed many holidays in Cornwall and would describe my experiences as tranquil and happy. In Cornwall I can find peace and quiet and I can see and smell the sea every day. I can’t find phone signal however, but this all adds to the flavour of finding tranquility in what is a beautiful part of the UK.

On the contrary, the CPRE’s tranquility map suggests that seeing towns, cities, airplanes and light pollution deters tranquility. This would suggest that investment in Green Infrastructure could be a waste of time as tranquility cannot be found in urban locations. I argue the opposite however. Since finishing my exams, three friends and I recently scaled Nunhead reservoir, an abandoned green space in Peckham which provides a view over London more beautiful than that from Primrose Hill. We sat to watch the sunset, seeing the city’s lights come on and followed airplane contrails for miles. It was one of the happiest feelings I have experienced and despite what the CPRE tranquility map suggests I had found tranquility in a place which according to the map should really detract from tranquility.

I argue that tranquility, however you imagine it and wherever you find it is an invaluable experience. It is a very personal moment and cannot simply be standardised or measured by the characteristics of the surrounding environment. It can be found and experienced anywhere. The value of tranquility is how it makes you feel and what it inspires you to do and think. Whilst desolation is a strong term to describe my current life phase, I found myself coming down from my education peak in Peckham smiling from ear to ear and happier than ever.

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