A Question of Values

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Posted on April 16, 2020

 How can we bring Data of the Heart into the equations of cost, value and connection? This poem was written for performance at the annual gathering of the UK Network of Environmental Economists (ENVECON2020) in London on March 13th 2020. We were delighted to be invited to the conference by Eftec. Here’s a short film that presents the poem against the backdrop of a series of locations across Cumbria. It’s a 6-minute watch … so settle in. And if you’re curious to read on, this short blog takes a meander through the background to the poem and the vital role of environmental economists in 2020.


We are in extraordinary times. Covid-19 has arrived. This indiscriminate virus has triggered dramatic responses from governments and widespread behavioural change across the planet. There has also been a show of solidarity and collective action, and there’s a phrase that you’ve probably heard again and again: ‘We are all in this together’

Crisis response can come one of two ways. It may come from a foundation of detailed planning, and use a predetermined framework for a controlled yet flexible response; or it may come as a kind of panic, with a lack of clarity or clear strategy. Just how things will pan out in a year or two is anyone’s guess. While there’s a sense that things may never be quite the same post-Covid, there is, however, the expectation of an ending to the pandemic. With this, albeit with a great deal of struggle and a burden of grief, there will also be an opportunity to move forward again. This is not so with the climate crisis or the drastic decline in biodiversity. These cannot be eliminated or contained with a vaccine: they will persist unless action is taken urgently. Policies and behaviours need to change significantly by 2030 to reduce carbon emissions by half their present levels and improve environmental quality before it is too late to avoid devastating impact from severe weather events, lost habitats, and extremes of climate.*


A new framework of individual and societal behaviour has developed in response to Covid-19. While this is short-term, it demonstrates how quickly change can happen when urgency is recognised. How about the climate, and the environment, of which we can certainly say ‘We’re all in this together’? A new framework is needed to respond to environmental challenges and to create better environmental conditions for plant and animal species around the world, and for future generations of humans. 

Economists, and in particular environmental economists, have a hugely important role to play as a strategy is built, both on a national basis and through international cooperation. Part of the challenge going forwards is to decide what changes are needed, and there is much work being done on this (in the UK the 25-Year Plan, the new Environment Bill, the Fisheries Bill, new Environmental Land Management Schemes, the new Office of Environmental Protection and Defra’s guidance on a Natural Capital approach are all part of this). 

But setting up an action plan is only one part of the equation: the other is, how can changes and new ways of working be paid for? There’s also the question of how natural resources such as fresh air, clean water, healthy soils, trees and green spaces can be valued effectively and built into equations of economic wellbeing, productivity and sustainability, in industry and in public life. How can changes be funded, or even incentivised? How can looking after the environment be seen as economically beneficial, or economically essential?  It may seem like a harsh question to ask about monetary value when the blunt fact is that without a healthy environment there’s little hope of health for a human society; nevertheless, the machinery of money continues to function. Environmental economists bring important skills to discussions about practical ways to navigate current challenges, to change systems of thinking and governance, and to manage economies with the environment acknowledged in every decision.


Neither of us are economists, but we are curious - so when we were invited to present at the UK Environmental Economists’ gathering early last month, we jumped at the chance. ‘Envecon’ brings together leading economists, strategic thinkers, policy makers and researchers to thrash out the issues of the day.  This year the focus was clear: acting now to change behaviours and systems in the light of the climate and biodiversity crises is a matter of urgency.

We were asked to close the conference with something that might offer an additional way in to thinking about some of the current challenges and questions, in the context of environmental economics. We decided to bring the concept of ‘data of the heart’ into the conference, and throw a bit of provocation into the space. After several lengthy conversations with people who are involved in this kind of thing on a daily basis - economic thinkers, policy advisers, ecologists and land management specialists - we developed our plan. This hinged on the composition of a long poem that could be performed by Harriet, interwoven with Rob’s reflections, in twenty minutes.


We spent a great deal of time talking through what we were learning from others, and researching the wider context. Then the actual work of writing began. The poem developed over a period of three weeks, with a series of early notes and thoughts. The process of composition took place during our week’s retreat in Porlock Weir; the piece found its final form just a couple of days before the event.


We arrived at the Royal Society, a very grand, marble-walled building whose huge windows overlook The Mall, carrying the canvas that we have been placing across the Lake District through 2019, each month with a different set of words on it (you can find out more about that here). We set this up in a rather grand room where delegates gathered together for coffee and lunch. We also brought a living tree with us, a 4-year old Scots Pine settled into a transparent planter etched with poetry. This found a new temporary home on a pedestal in the marble hall where the poetic performance took place. We wanted to bring the outside in, to introduce something of the natural environment, on which the conference was focusing, into the room, and make sure that hearts, as well as heads, were acknowledged. At the end of the day, we gave our presentation: a duet of sorts. Harriet delivered the poem in three parts from a small Juliet balcony overlooking the marble chamber; in between sections, Rob gave context to our work.


In response to requests on the day to make the poem available for others to see, we have made a film. The film draws on archive footage from our walks, camps and art installations of the past few years, and is built round a recorded performance in an old oak woodland in south Cumbria. This latter section was filmed on March 17th, before the country went into full lockdown, but when traffic movements had reduced significantly and social distancing measures were at their earliest stages. with the skies free from the noise of aeroplanes, roads empty of cars, and the nation riding the earliest shockwaves of the Covid-impact. This new state of affairs offers up an additional context for the poem, and another layer of relevance. Now is certainly a time to rethink so many of the structures of societies that, in a time of crisis, reveal themselves to be fragile and unsustainable. In the midst of huge challenges, there is an opportunity to act differently.



*The 2018 IPCC Report (put together by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) outlines the urgency to reduce warming with decisive action, and real change, by 2030. You can read the summary here, or from the same page follow the link to the headline statements.



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