What if…? Redefining research impact from an environmental humanities perspective.

Authors: Irma Allen, Jesse Peterson, Daniele Valisena, Anne Gough,
ENHANCE ITN – PhD Students, KTH – Environmental Humanities Laboratory, Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment

The following text has been conceived as an environmental humanities critique to research policy regarding what are considered  “research initiatives of excellence”.

What if ….? What if….? What if….?

All researchers want their work to have an impact and are increasingly under pressure to demonstrate it. But what does this mean? At present, research impact is largely defined in relation to dominant neoliberal economic frames. The language of excellence, innovation, development, marketability, knowledge economy, and the building of human capital are cornerstones to how funding agencies measure the value of academic outputs. But is this the best way to define impact? Critique of the research impact agenda by now is widespread, and we think that environmental humanities offers insightful ways to rethink what is meant by impact in radically alternative ways that address specifically environmental concerns.

Environmental Humanities (EH) takes as its starting point the idea that humans and nature are radically inseparable and that humanities subjects (literature, history, philosophy, arts, etc.) have the potential to provide key insights into the ways we live, why we do so, and how we can change. Environmental humanities research provides historical perspectives, situates scientific and technological change in cultural context, addresses ethical problems, interprets and provides new narratives, and works with local communities.

Humanities teaches about the power of words to make worlds. Storytelling as a way to generate alternative narratives is therefore at the heart of environmental humanities practice. This collaborative piece by four people undertaking a PhD in EH is a speculative attempt at what it means to redefine research impact through what we have learnt from doing environmental humanities research. Speculating means here supposing, hypothesising, venturing, or simply, imagining – asking ‘what if….’?. We speculate here from an EH perspective about ‘what if’ research impact was thought differently and how? What kinds of impact do we wish to be making? What do environmental humanities teach us about how we might measure research results, outcomes, and processes differently? Together we propose a story about the kind of research worlds we would like to inhabit.

We take four core concepts that are currently central to how research impact is understood – Mobility, Innovation, Employability, and Economic Growth – and rethink these. Instead, we propose that from an emphasis on mobility we shift to support for inhabited movement, that from a focus on innovation we switch to re-valuing innovative teaching that enhances ecological living, that from a concern with employability we highlight the building of ecological ability, and that from an obsession with economic growth we move towards degrowth as central ways that impact is defined. What if this was at the core of how research impact is measured..?

From employability to ecological-ability

Proposals for research funding illustrate their impact by describing how they will train researchers so that they be employable. Employability as a concept has become normalized, leading to funding opportunities, research projects, university courses and programs that survive only if they can promise to deliver a path to higher earnings. To meet this criteria, research projects train researchers in skills to capacitate them to work in a variety of academic and non-academic positions.

Employability–as a modified model of the linear career path model–is a reductive vision of a more ecologically-sound life path. By disregarding non-instrumentalist values within humanities scholarship, making researchers employable ignores different forms of training possibilities and opportunities. Satisfying employability as an impact criteria molds the researchers into marketable, tradable, commodities whom are personally responsible for their failures in employment and career. Because markets change, jobs increase or decrease, “employable” researchers can only find success in the terms of the market. In other words, universities bear little responsibility for providing researchers with jobs while they rely more heavily upon non-institutional funds. And, as a virtue of their employability, researchers are often uprooted, traded like sports players, and disincentivized to form lasting, meaningful relationships with local communities. Though a broader imagining of employability could take individual factors, personal circumstances, and external factors into account, employability negates the justification for actively cultivating skills and talents that do not serve the growth of the market economy. Employability serves globalized economic or political values over social or environmental ones.

From an EH perspective, researchers need ecological-ability. Rather than attempting to develop employability as a diverse set of skills that a researcher can pull out of his or her pocket like a swiss army knife or smartphone, funding could foment values and skills that extend outside economic logic to fulfill non-universalized ethical and ecological obligations. Impact could be measured by providing researchers with habits that contribute to the flourishing of lives and worlds, with an eye towards human health and well-being (an EU Environmental Policy objective). Training, therefore, ought to be provide researchers with life skills that enable them to improve the quality of life for themselves and other communities, including animals and environments. Qualities like reflexivity, community engagement, supporting alternative cosmologies, ethical action along with practical skills including gardening, holding an activist rally, foraging and hunting, writing a poem become as meaningful as one’s ability to publish an academic paper, plan a conference, or manage project finances.

From mobility culture to inhabited movement

Scholars’ mobility is considered to be one of the key factors in defining the quality of a research project. Internationalization of research, network-building, and human capital exchange all contribute to demonstrating the successfulness of an academic project. For example, in 2012 Swedish funding agency Vinnova launched the “Mobility for Growth” program, whose “overall objective is to support career development for individuals through mobility” (p. 2). Horizon 2020’s funding document underlines that in order to improve Europe’s “attractiveness for researchers […] research projects should encourage them to move between countries, sectors and disciplines to enhance their creativity and innovative potential” (p. 984). EU funded research programs also value the enhancing of mobility among academics as a concrete way of shaping European citizenship. But what kind of European citizenship does this produce? Although it is true that mobility of ideas and researchers has long been a fundamental component in the construction of an international scientific community – both for hard sciences as well as for human sciences – engaging with environmental humanities implies questioning the simplistic equation that mobility = good research and, more specifically, that increased mobility (hypermobility) = positive impact. Moving scholars’ bodies across borders and cultures entails moving and mixing cultures, habits, family and relational ties, ways of dwelling and ways of being together with other people, other environments and different ecologies of life.

Our carbon and ecological footprint should be considered when evaluating the impact of research projects. According to KTH’s Travelling Scientist, “researchers who want to contribute to a more sustainable world are on average emitting two tons of CO2-equivalents per year”. Imagine the increases in carbon usage for researchers required to be mobile. It’s counterintuitive for researchers aiming to reduce a local or global carbon footprint by increasing their own. Being hyper-mobile has its impacts; it boosts international connections — but perhaps at the expense of slower forms of engagement more locally, and also often to the detriment or risk to the researcher’s own wellbeing, sense of place, and capacity to build an ecological life. The very action of continuously moving between one country and another — be it to take part in training activities, perform multi-sited fieldwork, build a network, or participate in international conferences — contradicts basic knowledge about environmental harm.Thus, hyper-mobility cannot be part of any environmentalist agenda.

Environmental humanities research studies and supports experiences, livelihoods and research practices that promote a transnational and translocal sense of place without losing sight of the social and ecological relationships in various communities.

We need to be able to have the possibility to inhabit places as much move in and between spaces as scholars engaged in genuine transformative, environmental humanities work. Inhabiting takes time.

Environmental humanities as a research practice can and should contribute to preventing globalization from displacing de-rooted professionals across the globe, as well as criticizing the neo-liberal project (the flexibilization and causalization of academic laborers on the job market) behind the creation of intellectual placeless reservoirs.

Against economic value-producing and placeless citizenship fostered by hyper-mobility, environmental humanities promote community-based research practices, built around slow mobility, place, as well as human and more-than-human relations. As Ursula Heise framed it, environmental humanities helps retracing the sense of place (2008), while the hyper-mobility that informs many research agendas ends up loosening place-based ties. Trans-locality as an open form of dwelling should be a constituent of both research subjects as well as researchers’ lives. All those characteristics shape a form of ecological citizenship and awareness that should be the core mission of any environmental humanities projects.

From Innovation towards valuing innovative teaching inclusive of more-than-human worlds

The need to prove impact through innovation is a standard part of many research grant applications. But ‘innovation’ in this context most often means new products, services or technologies. Innovation can also be measured through publication output. But one area that has the biggest potential to create innovative impact within academic work is grossly undervalued or marginalized – that is, teaching. One reason for its low status in academia may be that teaching is a gendered practice – often treated as ‘women’s work’ because of its deployment of emotional labour and care. We propose that the concept of research innovation expands to include teaching, and innovations in teaching, as a central measure of impact on the kinds of students, or citizens, universities and research influences. ‘Students’ in this case should mean both those within the traditional boundaries of the university, but also, and more critically, those beyond.

Environmental humanities seeks to develop more equitable relationships among human and non-human communities. Rather than technology being the one-bullet answer to societal challenges, pedagogy allows for researchers to actively participate in shaping societal values, relations and responses to change, including building human-non-human engagement and the embedding of persons within an ecological world. Teaching is often the space where students can critique and imagine approaches to ways of living, justice, and environmental crisis, and learn to de-centre the human individual. Teaching changes the innovative product model to one where innovation is internalized in active subjects as students.

In particular, EH rests on the requirement that we participate in the world as we find it through learning and practice. It becomes about being ‘an effort to inhabit the difficult space of simultaneous critique and action’ (Rose, et al. 2012). Thus teaching should be understood ‘as action and the classroom as ‘the field’’ (Tripp, Muzzin, 2005; Hutchins 2012). Innovative teaching points towards the development of practice- and field-based learning particularly within the environmental humanities where experiential learning must be a central component if we are to apply our knowledge towards change.

From growth to degrowth

Research impact is often defined in relation to its contribution to economic growth measured in GDP. Yet the agenda of environmental humanities is at the very least critical of, if not outright oppositional to, economic growth as an overarching societal goal, since unfettered growth lies at the heart of the environmental crisis, including biodiversity loss, climate change, and resource depletion. So should the value of our research be measured in relation to it? Since, as economist Tim Jackson states, ‘Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries’, such a query is often deemed ridiculous. Particularly for researchers who must comply with the economistic boundaries of grant awarding bodies and funding agencies. Yet taking environmental humanities seriously points to the need to articulate this very question. The concept of ‘degrowth’ is emerging as one of the key modes by which environmental humanities is expressing this call for alternative practices (see Emmett and Nye 2017 and Nelson and Schneider 2018). This should apply to ways that research impact is defined too.

The ‘degrowth’ movement calls for relinquishing ambitions for growth, pursuing instead the aims of a steady-state economy. This is motivated both by the material reality of a drastic slowing-down of global economic growth as a contemporary sustained trend, combined with ecological and social limitations, including the fact that economic growth has increasingly failed to deliver on its promises of improving collective wellbeing, apparent in rising mental health issues, growing social inequality, and mounting ecological disaster. The Research and Degrowth community in Barcelona defines sustainable degrowth as a ‘downscaling of production and consumption that increases human wellbeing and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet’. What if research impact was measured in relation to contributing to such a downscaling of growth, producing happier, healthier, more productive and connected people and communities in the process? How would this redefine our research questions, practices and outputs? One of the main outcomes would be a refocus on a more expansive conception of wellbeing as intrinsic to the values of a degrowth economy, and therefore a central measure of our research impact.

The notion of human (and more-than-human) wellbeing is a cornerstone principle of degrowth economics. This is perhaps unsurprising since the degrowth movement has grown in traction alongside ideas of alternative measurements to economic growth, such as the ‘Gross National Happiness Index’, adopted also by the UN’s World Happiness Report. In June 2016, the OECD committed itself ‘to redefine the growth narrative to put people’s well-being at the centre of governments’ efforts’. At least rhetorically, wellbeing seems to be all the rage. This is also the case within the Higher Education sector. In August 2018, the UK Minister for Education, Sam Gymiah, said that the role of the University is no longer simply the ‘training of the mind’ but that promoting and ensuring the mental health and wellbeing of its students should be at the heart of its mission. Despite this focus on wellbeing as core to societal progress, research impact frameworks are yet to catch up. How might we think about research impact to focus on the wellbeing that it generates – from the wellbeing of the researcher themselves to the wellbeing of the organizations, communities, and societies that the researcher is part of – as part of a degrowth agenda? What cascade effects might this have on questions of precarity and the flexibilization of academic labour? Environmental humanities, that places questions of value, relationality, cultural ethos, and quality of life at the centre of its agenda, points urgently towards replacing growth with degrowth as an explicit research impact assessment framework to propel new practices to these ends.

Towards environmental humanities impact…

Our exercise in speculative engagement with the notion of research impact leaves us feeling hopeful and also alert to how things stand today. We recognise that currently we have to work within the boundaries of possibility which we inhabit. But as environmental humanities teaches us – imagination, wondering, posing the ‘what if…?’ question is the beginning of narrating new worlds into being. We look forward to a time where inhabited movement, ecological ability, innovative teaching, and degrowth – with their combined attention to wellbeing, care, relationality, and ethics – are core aspects of how we think about and measure the impacts researchers make on the world.


First published on the KTH EHL Blog 20th Sept 2018 – https://www.kth.se/blogs/hist/2018/09/what-if-redefining-research-impact-from-an-environmental-humanities-perspective/

Degrowth beyond environmentalism: Or shaking the temple of growthism, speaking the growth taboo, and sowing the seeds of generative doubt

Undisciplined Environments, a conference held in Stockholm 20 – 23rd March 2016, was an intensive four-day introduction to all things latest in political ecology. Not surprisingly, considering its exponentially growing significance, the degrowth movement got at least a couple of panels dedicated to it, plus I’m sure a good amount of corridor chat, mentions from speakers, and presence in the form of the Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era publication in the conference’s impromptu ‘bookshop’. Degrowth is growing. But do all agree on what ‘degrowth’ is about and does that matter for the movement?

Going along to one of the degrowth panels I found the papers presented very interesting in their breadth of original data. (Unfortunately I missed most of the first one – which was about degrowth as a movement for peace. Intuitively engaging but I won’t comment as I was not there!)We heard about research that had been conducted on the environmental values and attitudes of a sample of participants from the Fourth International Conference on Degrowth at Leipzig in 2014, pointing out via complex plotted axis on graphs the hypocrisies of probably many of us sitting in the room at the time (shamefully including in large part myself!) – so-called modernist rationalists who say ‘do as I say, not as I do!’  – i.e. fly to international conferences, eat a non-vegetarian diet, and consume technology like there’s no tomorrow (literally). Next up was impressively thorough statistical analysis on European ‘degrowth’ proneness in relation to a series of environmental actions that citizens of a wide number of EU countries might participate in, such as recycling, paying green taxes or using public transport. And finally there was a paper on working-class environments, looking at the cross-over of nine trade unions’ strategies across five or so countries in Europe with environmentally progressive agendas. All super interesting as examples of research into trends towards environmentalism, particularly the latter as working-class environmentalisms get lean attention. Yet – in connecting this to the movement, I found myself wondering what was specifically ‘degrowth’ about these actions? How were they different to other forms of environmental activism such as that propelled by Transition Towns, NGO campaigns, or even government-endorsed programmes to ‘green’ consumerism, the economy and capitalism itself?

It’s not that I think environmental behaviours and actions– such as being vegan, not flying, consuming less, recycling, being pro-renewables, and calling for green taxes – aren’t good things in themselves. They definitely are.  But, there are plenty of other groups and movements that are already focusing on these things. I was also left wondering if all those who advocate for the types of activities mentioned here are themselves aware that they are considered part of the degrowth movement? Would they all sign up to – and use – that term? That is important in considering how crystallized the movement is politically. For many of these actions are often still compatible with capitalist growth in both their individual and co-optable nature – particularly perhaps taxes and green lifestyle choices. It seems to me that degrowth needs to go beyond this, as I am sure many agree. But what does that mean?

Degrowth scholars Federico Demaria, Francois Schneider, Filka Sekulova and Joan Martinez-Alier (2013: 210) in their article ‘What is Degrowth?’ say that it ‘brings together a heterogeneous group of actors who focus on housing and urban planning, financial issues and alternative money systems, agroecology and food systems, international trade, climate justice, children’s education and domestic work, meaningful employment and cooperatives, as well as transport and alternative energy systems.’ They claim degrowth’s diversity as a strength of the movement. Networking networks, as the authors call it, I agree can be a powerful strategy for generating change. But like them, I also agree that these actions must form a greater sum of parts if they are to equal a broader and visionary ‘degrowth movement’. Campaigning for increased pedestrian or cycle facilities, frugal living, or experiments in sharing economies are positive steps in a useful direction – but, as individual actions they could steer us away from the progressive degrowth society we aspire to if not brought together into a more holistic and radical synthesis. As Demaria and colleagues say (ibid: 206): ‘Degrowth only makes sense when its sources are taken into account, meaning not just ecology and bioeconomics, but also meaning of life and well-being, anti-utilitarianism, justice and democracy. Taken independently they can lead to incomplete and reductionist projects fundamentally incompatible with the ideas of the degrowth movement’.

I would say that the concept of degrowth is a radically challenging and politicizing one. What makes it different (and uncomfortable) is that it is fundamentally anti-capitalist, since a no-growth society, even if not immediately non-capitalist, calls forth new modes of development and organization that are post-capitalist in nature. Unlike ‘sustainability’, ‘green economy’ or even ‘organic’, degrowth is perhaps the one concept that capitalism cannot co-opt and sell back to us. Therein lies its strength – it is a safe space for rethinking the politics of ecology. For some this makes the movement problematic – literally no one will ‘buy’ it (note the growth-centric turn of phrase). I think for sure many won’t – and that’s ok. Not all environmentalists or social activists will sign up to the cause. But by being present in the arena, degrowth can contribute hugely to changing the parameters of what is on and off the table for all involved. That in itself would be a substantial achievement that should not be underestimated

Since its de-politicization by the capitalist spirit of sustainability, the need to articulate what lies beyond environmentalism is a key task for degrowthers. I strongly believe it is a degrowth movement that aligns ecological and social visions, and yet I think if this is to succeed in building something new (even if for sure incorporating elements of the ‘old’) then I would agree with Demaria et al’s statement (which I think slightly contradicts their earlier emphasis on wide heterogeneity as strength) that ‘We need not only agreements within the movement on what it advocates, but also on how to implement the proposals.’ This sounds like a call for a strategy, or at least a number of overarching diagnostic approaches bringing together different insights. What kind? Here are a couple of interconnected initial thoughts…

First, we should view growth from a psychological perspective, seeking to understand why questioning it seems to be so painful. Growth forms a core to constructions of identities, perceptions of ontological security, frames of representation and sense of purpose for many. It is not just an economic process or structure – neither is it simply the accumulated sum of our individual or even collective actions. It is not a purely rational logic either (what is?), but a deeply emotional and subconscious one, even spiritual, with its own rituals, rites and incantations. Thus, I would suggest that growthism can be usefully viewed as a temple of faith with its own language, thought-processes, morals and practices and at which many faithful followers worship. The consequence of shaking faith in growth will be a psychological and existential fallout that is perhaps already occurring. And so, degrowthers must be prepared to be spirit doctors as well as system analysts.

Taking an anthropological perspective, we should also understand and then reframe growth’s wider cultural role. In many parts of today’s world, questioning growth is tantamount to a social and political taboo at many levels. Taboos serve a social function related to maintaining the distinctions between the sacred and profane, between clean and unclean. The taboo on questioning growth maintains a specific social order. Degrowth radically challenges that taboo by speaking its name, unflinchingly and persistently asking ‘does growth really equal progress and prosperity?’ A lot of research points to the negative consequences of growth on social and environmental impacts. Yet, I would suggest that beyond those likely to read this blog post, that negative correlation is not so readily called to mind. Decoupling growth from positive social, economic, environmental and political goods in the minds of many people is work that still very much needs doing. Mainstream party political manifestos tell us so. Championing that research, re-cycling it, re-inscribing it, communicating and re-communicating in amplified forms should be a central task of degrowth. Raising economic and ecological literacy are all part of that task.

Finally, we might wish to come at growth as skeptic philosophers. The degrowth movement should emphasize actions that increase the capacity and propensity to doubt growthism – and at all levels (individual, community, societal, government, transversal). We are here to sow the seeds of healthy doubt – many seeds, thousands, if not millions… To spread them, watch them grow, help to harvest them, tend to them. But the kind of doubt we should be spreading is a creative doubt, a generative one – not a fearful or alienating form of doubt.  One with new, hopeful visions on the other side that yes, draw on ‘old’ and ‘new’ environmentalisms and other progressive strands of thought.

Together, I think these complementary approaches, that could perhaps be more central strands of the movement, could serve to change the nature of the wider debate dramatically.

To this end, I was recently involved in setting up the UK’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Limits to Growth – a cross-party group of UK MPs and Peers who sign up to the idea that ‘we need to talk about growth’. When the group was being created, the majority of those involved did not believe that it would get the requisite number of parliamentary members to make the group official (five), particularly not under the banner of any conception of ‘limits’ to growth. It did: the group has 13 members and it is being launched on April 19th 2016. Growth is being questioned even by those in positions of power. To prevent appropriation by any conservative forces, and, at the same time, bring on board new allies in non-traditional progressive champions, the degrowth movement is well-placed to provide the bottom-up leadership to direct attention towards possible democratic and progressive solutions as more begin to wake up to growthism’s limits. This I think requires more than a network of networks, or individual actions – but a strategy for collective change, including who or what counts as ‘in’ and ‘out’. Demaria et al (ibid: 207) argue that: ‘The movement has an urgent pending task: to elaborate a transition (better called a transformation) path in rich societies from the actual crisis of economic growth to socially accepted degrowth’. Perhaps a possible step for the next degrowth conference in Budapest this September?

(First blogged at The Seed Box Blog: https://theseedboxblog.wordpress.com/2016/04/02/response-to-undisciplined-environments-2016/)

Lambeth Living Well, or Making Ill?

housing debateAt the Lambeth Housing Crisis Question Time debate last month, organised by residents of Cressingham Gardens, an estate threatened by potential demolition, a tenant angrily questioned the six-strong panel of Councillors and academic experts “This is a community! Do you know about community? Do you live in a community?” Since recent research shows that around 1 in 10 people in Britain can’t name a single one of their neighbours, they perhaps did not. If decision-makers may have no first-hand experience of being part of a community, how can we expect them to value let alone protect this rare asset? We therefore might wonder, as another audience member rightly queried, is the impact of such ‘regeneration’ schemes on mental health and wellbeing being taken into consideration in decision-making? At present it seems not. Should it? Yes – here’s why, according to Lambeth’s own aims and ambitions.

Lambeth Council are facing severe and compounding housing, mental health, and social isolation problems. On top of this, their budget has been slashed by 50% since 2011;  no easy picture. The borough has one of the longest council housing waiting lists nationwide. 21,000 people are currently hoping to get a council owned property in the borough, a 210% increase since 1997. A further 1800 families are in temporary accommodation or homeless, while yet another 1300 are living in severely overcrowded conditions. If that wasn’t enough, half of the borough’s council stock is yet to meet the Decent Homes Standard.

Simultaneously, and very likely to  be linked, according to the 2010 Marmot Review, the number of people using mental health services in Lambeth is three times the national average. In 2007, Lambeth was spending £276 per capita on mental health care, the fourth highest amount in England. In 2013, it was reported to have the highest number of benefits claims for mental health problems of any London borough.

A further interlinked factor is social isolation. As a nation, we are reputedly the loneliest in Europe. Particularly, a reported 25% of Londoners say they feel lonely all or some of the time. For adults using social care services, according to a Health and Social Care Information Centre report last year, this is especially the case. While the percentage of users who said they had ‘little social contact with people and feel socially isolated’ is 5.5% in England, that rises to 7.7% in London. In Lambeth, the figure is 9.8%, one of the worst in the country. In addition to the mental health crisis, our growing (and co-morbid) loneliness crisis is one that councils should be striving to avoid, not contribute to, at all costs – for cost it does, socially and financially.

Yet, following heavily criticised evictions from its so-called ‘shortlife’ housing co-ops, and a growing number of unpopular redevelopment plans on yet other estates such as the Guinness Trust and Myatt’s Field, as well as sheltered housing in Leigham Court, Lambeth’s current destructive approach to housing and thus its own fragile social fabric will arguably result in heavy long-term costs, both economic and social. Perhaps Lambeth Council do not realise just how compounded these issues are? However, if we are to take at face value the remit of one of its flagship initiatives, set up in 2010, the ‘Lambeth Living Well Collaborative’, then, actually, they do. So why the lack of joined-up thinking?

The ‘Lambeth Living Well Collaborative’:

lambethlogoThe ‘Collaborative’ brings together commissioners, providers of health and social care services, service users and carers in order to implement the much-touted idea of ‘co-production’ to “radically improve the outcomes for people experiencing severe and on-going mental health problems”. It is intended to be a ‘demonstration site’ as part of Lambeth’s ‘Co-operative Council’ experiment; an experiment aimed at involving citizens more in designing and running services and  lampooned as a gross paradox considering the borough’s dismantling of many housing co-operatives. Leaving the much-commented-on irony of the ‘co-operative council’ aside, a further contradiction lies in the Collaborative’s own vision: “that The Lambeth Living Well Area will provide the context within which every citizen…can flourish, contribute to society and lead the life they want to lead.” This is to be achieved by taking a holistic “Total Place” approach – “because the wider determinants of health have the most significant impact on health outcomes” – including housing and community.

One of the most progressive aspects of the Collaborative, for whom I did some work during a short stint at the Innovation Unit back in 2012, is their recognition of the detrimental effects of social isolation, and therefore their emphasis on building people’s resilience and “community-based interdependence” as a preventative approach to tackling mental ill-health, moving away from medical models of treatment. Part of this involves pumping money and resources into creating “lasting and sustainable support” for those experiencing mental distress “in their own communities and networks”.

According to Collaborative figures, the Council’s spends £3.4 million annually on supporting ‘social inclusion’ in the Voluntary and Community Sector. A further £3.15 million is provided by NHS Lambeth’s Clinical Commissioning Group to support a range of third sector organisations, including many activities focused on developing people’s safety-nets through social links, such as via Certitude’s ‘Connected Communities’ initiative and peer support, as well as building their ability to live independently.  In 2012 Lambeth spent an additional £100,000 setting up three pilot ‘Timebanks’ in the borough – part of a nationwide campaign to “inspire a new generation of volunteers” in a reciprocal, and transactual, exchange system where time is the unit of currency given and received; the idea being that volunteering and being part of a social network is positive for mental wellbeing.  All similar to the sorts of well-meaning ‘palliatives’ that (as mentioned in my last blog) George Monbiot wrote are being thought up to banish our loneliness epidemic.

While I am not knocking these efforts on their own terms, it seems supremely negligent and self-destructive to be priming the pump on the one hand, attempting to re-connect broken community links through expensive, artificial, top-down incentives, while at the same time, being involved in ripping up and shredding well-functioning, sustainable, and organically developed communities that are in existence. Why are Lambeth currently in the process of destroying some of the very precious few genuine communities that do exist in its borders? In particular, why are a Labour council dismantling housing co-ops, which Tessa Jowell has said to be “Britian’s best kept secret”, stimulating “active community participation”?

Lambeth’s communities shattered:

As Jonathan Bartley, Green Party Parliamentary Candidate, pointed out at the Housing Crisis Question Time debate, rare communities that help and look after each other are under threat. Thanks to a campaign, one such community in Streatham, where elderly and terminally ill people cook for each other, and are involved in the day-to-day of each others’ lives, was recently saved. This was not the case for another man, already evicted from his ‘shortlife’ housing co-op on Somerleyton Rd to make way for re-developments, who spoke of the devastating effects on his life of having his community destroyed: “I ended up in SLAM (South London and Maudesley hospital) because my mental health deteriorated”. Yet it’s not just the effects on those displaced. The dismantling of such communities impacts on us all.


Rectory Gardens residents protest the sale of their homes. *Photo borrowed from Lambeth Save our Services: http://lambethsaveourservices.org/2012/10/31/rectory-gardens-protest-halts-auction-viewing/

Take the further example of Rectory Gardens ‘shortlife’ housing co-op in Clapham Old Town, about which I am currently involved in making a documentary film. Residents, who have made these council-owned properties their home since the 1970s, are being evicted so that Lambeth can sell off the street of 28 houses at auction to raise funds. As I have written about in another blog, it is solely down to self-directed, co-operative efforts to maintain and improve the once dilapidated houses, through sharing skills and investing their own time, money and labour into their renovation, that the houses could now be worth around £500,000 on the market. Yet, as an OHCR global report on forced evictions and human rights uncannily describes, these sorts of development processes almost always affect the poorest members of society, and tend to be justified on economic grounds or as a ‘public good’. All too familiarly, Lambeth have sought to do just that. Cllr. Matthew Bennett, Labour Cabinet Member for Housing in Lambeth, told our film crew that since they cannot afford to refurbish the houses, which he says are ‘unfit’ for habitation (despite people residing there for 40 years with the Council’s permission), the council’s only option is to sell them on the private market, putting the proceeds towards the building of “1000 new council homes”.

They have so far made £56 million on the sale of 120 other shortlife houses; money which, incidentally, has not been ring-fenced for direct spend on housing. But residents have never requested for the council to spend money refurbishing the properties they themselves have done up over the years. They have suggested they keep looking after them as part of a wider Super Co-op, becoming secure council tenants in the process. This solution, which would have preserved the community, has been rejected. Yet, according to Lambeth Collaborative’s own policy on building social resilience, Rectory Gardens housing co-op as it exists today is precisely the sort of ‘natural’ community that the Council should be rushing over to support, promote, and publicly champion.

The houses may not be tidy specimens of a pristine suburbia, epitomised by the modern, gated housing block next door; the paint is peeling; bricks are crumbling; nature is pushing through crevices. But it is precisely this organic, imperfect condition, which also characterises the self-help community, upsetting some neighbours for its untamed ‘messiness’, that makes Rectory Gardens of such immense value – and I don’t mean economic.

The real and costly tragedy lies in the destruction of that rare modern urban entity – an organically developed, self-supporting community of diverse people, including young and old, families and unique characters, looking out for and helping one another without top-down ‘incentives’. Neither friendship clubs nor so-called ‘community development’ are needed here. Some of the residents are elderly; others have physical and psychological disabilities. One co-op member explains to me that, as a result, some contribute more to the community than others, based on their ability – this is the nature of being in a ‘co-op’. It is not transactual, nor always equal – unlike the concept of Timebanking, marketed on the idea that you get as much as you give.

Let me be clear – it is by no means a utopia. There are internal politics and tensions, as within any of the most cohesive of families. Yet this is what makes it all the more genuine – not perfect, not pristine, but raw and uneven, not something that can be easily manufactured nor constructed. As one resident put it “it’s like a village in the city here. We aren’t all friends, but we all know each other, and have learnt to live together, and there’s always someone to help you.” Building new council homes is a fine thing to do. But at the expense of stable communities that constructively and independently absorb and support a range of vulnerable peoples? I don’t think we have the idea of ‘value’ right if so. Furthermore, the idea of other co-ops being formed to take its place elsewhere, as Cllr. Bennett has implied, reminds me of the notion of biodiversity offsetting – an ecosystem is inimitable in its complexity. Are we to understand this as a casualty of apparently fungible social capital?

A further danger lies in the effect of residualisation – as social housing stock declines, those who do end up being council tenants are those most in need. Fabians calls this ‘poverty tenure’. This in turn compounds ill-health, concentrating the likelihood of developing mental ill-health in ever ghetto-ised social housing, increasingly located in neighbourhoods characterised by greater poverty – Rectory Gardens is indeed one of the last remaining social housing stocks in Clapham Old Town, a neighbourhood now largely affordable only to the wealthiest individuals. Residents have been re-housed elsewhere. The co-op houses will become private property. This does little to contribute to genuinely diverse and mixed communities in a fast gentrifying borough, while increasing the chances of later mental health repercussions.

One house on Rectory Gardens has already been sold, apparently to a foreign investor who lives overseas and is renting it out to two young professionals on the private market. It is the only property to look ‘smartened-up’; freshly painted white, with a polished front door, and a Banham security alarm adorned on its front. I’ve been told that the new tenants do not stop to say hello to anyone on the street; nobody knows their names. In the other houses that are slowly being evicted one by one, property guardians from Camelot and VPS have moved in. They are friendly enough, but they will soon be in and out – a transient and shape-shifting community at best. Semi-aware of his own unfortunate, and technically blameless, role in turfing the community out, one says “this street will definitely just become another characterless, soulless street of posh, expensive houses, no doubt about it.” Welcome to the new Rectory Gardens, now next door to one of a growing number of Lambeth’s ‘gated communities’. Is this the future that Lambeth Council envision? Pursuing present policies, it sadly appears so.

The repercussions of losing that community forever are yet to be fully known, or accounted for. It reminds me of Labour Councillors Nigel Haselden, Christopher Wellbelove, and Helen O’Malley who, in their 2007 election leaflets, said “these communities provide a welcome permanence to the borough” and “it would be senseless as well as expensive to evict them”. Yet shortly after they were elected they reneged on these promises. The only one who remained supportive, O’Malley, was de-selected. I wonder who will be proved right in the long-term.

Yet, in an interview for the documentary, and once again at the housing debate, Cllr. Matthew Bennett, was extremely pejorative about the co-op, which he claims did not take the opportunity to formalise itself with the Council. In actual fact, the Council never gave them that option. This in itself is telling of an attitude that sees bottom-up, non-institutionalised initiatives as a potential threat to be eliminated. Over on Somerleyton Rd the Council are involved in “setting up” what Bennett calls a “genuine” co-op; presumably a Council-sanctioned and initiated one, and one which Carlton Mansions shortlife housing co-op had to make way for earlier this year… Hardly befitting the ‘co-operative council’s’ claim of wanting to “transfer power to its citizens”. MP Steve Reed, who initiated the co-operative council concept in Lambeth, writes “handing power to the people is not straightforward because it means taking power away from those who currently hold it; they will often resist this change both individually and organisationally. Councils are structured to provide top-down services, and these structures need to change if we want citizen-led services to thrive”. It seems the radical implications of their own policies have not yet filtered through into action. Transferring power means stepping back and making space for the unplanned and non-bureaucratised; of letting things sprout through and emerge in untidy ways, not ‘tidying up’ and out those who dare to think and do differently.

Lambeth Living Miserably?

Back at last month’s Lambeth Housing Crisis Question Time Debate, Dr. Paul Watt from Birkbeck University concluded that, in almost exact contradiction to the Collaborative’s stated aims, “many of these regeneration schemes are actually producing sickness” rather than delivering “decent conditions in which people can live healthy lives”. Perhaps this is because Lambeth fails to recognise the difference between a ‘house’, a roof over one’s head, and a ‘home’, a place full of a sense of belonging, meaning, identity and community. Pressured by their long council house waiting list combined with severe budget cuts, it is no wonder that the council are looking for quick-fix answers that fulfil the minimum need. But this is terribly short-sighted. Yes there is a housing crisis. But if Lambeth are to tackle the other most severe and critical issue it faces – that of rising mental health problems and associated costs – it must think about housing in terms of providing and supporting the concept of ‘homes’, not merely four walls and a ceiling. It must value community and wellbeing above short-term economic gain.

That we are unclear on the long-term repercussions of so-called ‘regeneration’ schemes is evident in the fact that, as panellist Michael Edwards from UCL pointed out, regrettably there are almost no long-term studies being done to follow through these processes and assess wellbeing impacts. One such rare example that I’ve sourced online – a 2011 briefing paper by the Glasgow-based 10-year research programme GoWell, investigating the impact of investment in housing, regeneration and urban renewal on health and wellbeing in the city – tellingly found that while “[t]argeted housing improvement has generally had a positive effect on mental health…the effects of area-led regeneration are either absent or shown to have negative consequences.” More research is required to corroborate and map this more widely. I would also add to the bigger question, that as these communities become rarer and rarer, what do we stand to lose as a broader society? Without these functioning, self-created examples, we are all the poorer in our collective social imagination and aspiration.

Neither the aims of the ‘cooperative council’ nor the ‘Lambeth Living Well Collaborative’ are being served by the current local government’s short-termist attitude to housing, epitomised by current struggles in the borough; an approach that means we all lose in the end.

Housing crisis, economic crisis, mental health crisis, loneliness crisis – how many crises does it take to change the ideological lightbulb?


To read more about Rectory Gardens, take a look at another recent (and apologies also lengthy/detailed!) blog by me on the Spectacle website, here.

If you want to listen to the full audio recording of the Lambeth Housing Crisis Question Time debate organised by Cressingham Garden residents, click here.

To learn more about housing campaigns in Lambeth, visit the Lambeth Housing Activists website.

To learn more about housing campaigns in London, visit the Radical Housing Network website.


(Blog republished on Brixton Buzz: http://www.brixtonbuzz.com/2015/01/lambeth-living-well-or-making-ill-housing-in-crisis/)

To thrive, we must get radically political – not just commit to private actions for happiness

Last week, I attended an evening presenting Richard Layard and David Clark’s new book Thrive: The Power of Evidence-Based Psychological Therapies hosted by Action for Happiness, which Layard co-founded. Underlining the core thesis of their book, Layard and Clark spoke about the immense potential for evidence-based psychological therapies to alleviate the burden of mental illness in the UK; if only we invested more in these services. They encouraged us to write to MPs to ask Commissioners to do so. This is in the tailwind of Mind releasing a report last month in which Local Authorities were rightly lambasted for spending ‘unacceptably low’ amounts on mental ill-health prevention services[1]. While funding for mental ill-health represents only 1.36% of the national budget, we spend four times as much on anti-smoking initiatives. Yet suffering from mental illness can shorten lives more than smoking and is the single largest source of burden of disease in the UK.

This demonstrates the terrible inequality between the way we treat physical and mental illnesses that must cease. Spending on provision for mental health needs to be ramped up to high volume. Agreed.

What concerned me about the Thrive event, however, was a feeling that we were skirting around the core issue – that is, the political and economic background against which the mental health crisis has exploded, has itself thrived. It is no coincidence, in my mind, (and many already agree), that we have seen the escalation of mental health problems coincide with the rise of a neoliberal political ideology that, since the 1980s, has promoted individualism, competition, commodification, marketisation, and privatisation of common goods and services. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found that the resultant visible securitisation of our physical environment in cities and towns has created a pervasive culture of fear and anxiety, undermining trust and social cohesion further, and contributing to mental illness. A report published in 2010 by the Mental Health Foundation directly links mental ill-health to our individualistic society. We are the one of the most unhappydistrusting, and lonely countries in the world, with one of the highest rates of self-harm in Europe.

At the same time, we have seen the welfare system hacked back, with direct implications for those struggling with mental ill-health. Last year, Mind reported a 50% increase in the number of calls to its Infoline, according to the Guardian, with callers reporting severe financial worries. Oxfordshire Mind received £336,078 (I am curious how the £8 was decided on…) from the Big Lottery Fund to deal with some of this fallout through its Benefits for Better Mental Health service. The recession has been found to have hit those with mental illness hardest, with fears for the impact on yet further social exclusion. How can we talk about calling for more funding for mental health without talking about austerity and health privatisation and what the broader ideology behind this is doing to our societal capacity for wellness?

Take social anxiety; the most common anxiety disorder, which David Clark spoke about at the launch. Social anxiety relates to an excessive level of self-consciousness and fear concerning what others are thinking about you, leading to avoidance or intense anxiety of social situations. A social dis-ease. As a very shy young person, I experienced this myself and know how crippling it can be, even far into adulthood. There are many things one can do – investing in more access to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to ‘correct’ thinking and put it into perspective is one (although this approach itself requires critical examination). But, shouldn’t we be asking, what kind of society creates this condition in the first place? Why are we so afraid of one another? Or, perhaps, why have we not made space in our society for shyer more reserved peoples (worryingly, Social Anxiety Disorder reaches back to concepts of shyness in its historical development) – something that Susan Caine, in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, deems to be the result of a cultural ideological ideal of extraversion, which fits hand in glove with our other cultural holy grail of brash individualism and competition. Perhaps we should look at social anxiety as a symptom of the cultural myth of the confident, self-made individual clamouring for recognition, which has no time for the quiet, the uncertain, or the not-yet fully formed, fully ‘self-branded’ person. For this reason, perhaps it is no surprise that Social Anxiety Disorder is most common in the young – particularly those in their 20s.

Describing how psychological therapies can help such conditions, and many others, Clark concludes that a ‘large proportion’ of mental health problems are often solved by someone simply listening and being sympathetic. Hang on a minute… Rewind…  ‘…are often solved by someone simply listening and being sympathetic.’


If that is true, then shouldn’t we be asking – what’s going on with us that we don’t provide that for each other? Why must I go to a therapist to have this basic human need and capacity offered to me? In a society dominated by so-called ‘communication skills’ and communication technologies – have we forgotten what it means to listen? Do we not know what it’s like to be heard until we enter a therapy room? How tragic. I can’t help but feel that our capacity for true empathy (I dislike the word sympathy) is swallowed up by the ticking clock, the over-bombardment of advertising and images, and the relentless me-first mentality that we are led to believe is necessary to ‘win’. Only those we pay have the time and skill, or perhaps the permission, to listen. For to admit that we are mentally unwell is to admit that we are not so sure that we are ‘winning’. And to listen to another – to truly hear empathetically – is to perhaps admit that neither are we…

According to George Monbiot in a recent Guardian article, this ‘Age of Loneliness’ – of individual striving and surviving – is killing us. Loneliness is a significant cause and augmenter of mental health problems, as well as factor contributing to reduced life expectancy. Monbiot attributes its pernicious prevalence to that ‘life-denying’ neoliberal ideology that ‘enforces and celebrates our social isolation. The war of every man against every man – competition and individualism, in other words – is the religion of our time, justified by a mythology of lone rangers, sole traders, self-starters, self-made men and women, going it alone. For the most social of creatures, who cannot prosper without love, there is no such thing as society, only heroic individualism. What counts is to win. The rest is collateral damage.’

Echoing similar analysis, Action for Happiness state on their website: ‘We live in an increasingly competitive, self-obsessed culture which encourages us to pursue wealth, appearance, status and possessions as a route to success. This is supported by our political and economic systems that are focused on maximising economic growth above all else… [O]ur focus on materialism and self-obsessed individualism is leading to serious problems across society. We’ve seen huge increases in anxiety and depression in young people, greater inequality, more family breakdown, lower levels of trust, longer working hours, growing environmental problems and crippling levels of debt.’ At the same time, Layard and Clark write in their book that ‘mental illness does seem to be more common in countries where there are low levels of support, trust, and cooperation, and excessive levels of competition for position’.

But both Action for Happiness’s and Layard and Clark’s response is woefully, inadequately non-political – ‘By focusing our time and energy instead on things that have been shown to consistently bring happiness we can live rich, rewarding lives. These things include loving families, close friendships, good self-awareness, strong community ties, helping others, meaningful activities, keeping active, and having a spiritual dimension or greater purpose to our lives.’ In one swift movement, Action for Happiness brings us to the brink of the structural problem, and then whisks us away into the private realm of personal and family life, where it is promised that ‘small actions’ will ‘build a happier society’ and a ‘social movement’ for change.

In a similar vein during the event, Layard argued that of course we need to address attitudes and social values, moving away from competition, consumption and material status aspiration. We must foster communities that put altruism at their core to counter these forces. As if to initiate this, the Chair, the Director of Action for Happiness, was anxious to keep encouraging us to ‘think of small actions we can do ourselves’ to make the world happier, asking us to write a ‘pledge’ on the back of a small credit-sized card we were each given on our seats. If only these personal credits could outweigh the structural debts on the balance sheet.

Of course small actions matter – they matter to people here, now, the starfish that was put back in the sea; but this perspective ignores the conditions that structure our responses. How can we create an altruistic, meaningful, spiritual, community-minded society in the context of vast inequality, insecurity, and the creed of competitive individualism that is ingrained in the logic of our institutions, even within our infrastructure? The GREAT DREAM of the ’10 Keys for Happier Living’ that Action for Happiness promotes is curtailed and crippled by the very economic and political structures that had to dream it. Our capacities for Giving, Relating, Exercising, Appreciating, Trying out, Direction, Resilience, Emotion, Acceptance, and Meaning are all socially defined and constrained.

Neither altruism, nor small personal actions, can ever be enough if we’re talking about the scale of change we need. It is like being told to eat a healthy diet in the face of the billions spent on advertising junk food to halt obesity… Or putting little pictures of blackened lungs and rotting corpses on packets of cigarettes to prevent cancer… Or telling us to switch off our lights and unplug our mobile phones to prevent runaway climate change… Or investing more into psychological therapies for those struggling with mental ill-health… They are good things to do, but they don’t solve the root problems; rather, conceal them.

This obfuscation is duplicated in Layard’s own analysis – he argues that the majority of those who are least satisfied with their lives are most likely to be suffering from a form of mental illness, which itself causes more misery than poverty or unemployment. Whilst definitely seeking to reject the pathologising of sadness and wanting more from life, isn’t long-lasting dissatisfaction and unhappiness often a cause of mental illness? And physical illness, poverty, and unemployment are all factors that significantly increase the likelihood of developing mental health problems as self-reinforcing factors. Comparing the suffering caused by mental illness to that of poverty is a misnomer – mental illness emerges out of a whole combination of layered factors, including poverty or unemployment itself, and is often a symptom not itself a cause. This shows up the danger of simply focusing on treatment and not prevention or the wider causes for its manifestation. If we segregate mental illness from factors such as poverty, unemployment, and social fragmentation, we wind up in an apolitical situation in which ‘happiness’ simply becomes a thing that we try to create in our spare time, rather than seeking to build a conception of mental wellness into the very logic of our social system.

Layard says that we need to rethink the concept of ‘deprivation’ to reflect what is going on inside someone’s own mind – for mental illness spans income inequalities and socioeconomic backgrounds. Both poor and rich can suffer. Yet, pinpointing mental illness as an individual phenomenon again misses the point – this is a social, structural crisis, not just a personal one.

Wanting to appeal to a wide audience, Action for Happiness state that is has ‘no political, religious or commercial affiliations’. This is bigger than party politics; that is true. Yet, stopping short of challenging the neoliberal logic we find ourselves forced into, it only ends up standing by the political, dogmatic, and commercially-minded ideology that is framing the existence of this social movement in the first place.

The mental health crisis should be understood as a social limit to growth – that is, a social warning system sounding the alarm against the relentless pursuit of endless economic growth within the current paradigm, as Action for Happiness themselves seem to recognise. But if we are serious about, say, Gross National Happiness as our measure of progress, then we must recognise that this entails a supremely radical shake-up of our entire economic model and cultural ideology. At its logical endpoint, we are talking about challenging the very ideology of growth itself. As Monbiot concludes, ‘Yes, there are palliatives, clever and delightful schemes like Men in Sheds and Walking Football developed by charities for isolated older people’ (And isn’t ‘Action for Happiness’ just such a palliative?) ‘But if we are to break this cycle and come together once more, we must confront the world-eating, flesh-eating system into which we have been forced.’

I am not sure whether Action for Happiness, or indeed Layard and Clark, are aware that their stated ambitions, to create a ‘happier society for everyone’, and a ‘positive change in what we mean by progress’ away from ‘materialism and self-obsessed individualism’, are much more radical, and political, than they themselves perhaps wish to admit.

In the last sentence of their book, Layard and Clark say that with regards to mental health ‘Apart from global warming, there is no other major problem which is so neglected worldwide.’ I agree – and would add that both are at root the same problem; as one audience member put it – a system that itself is psychologically unwell, in the manner of Joel Bakan’s pathological corporation. The solution to both can only be system-level change – a confrontation with the fundamental neoliberal logic of our entire current mainstream politics and economics. What could be more radically political – and more mentally sound – than that?

[1] As an aside – I am always amused and irritated in equal measure by such turns of phrase as ‘mental health prevention services’ or, in chit-chat, ‘she’s got mental health’ – as if people being well, that is mentally healthy, is the thing that is bad. Let’s get it right – we’re talking about mental illness not wellness here, sadly.

Why saying “You better watch out, you better not cry, better not pout, I’m telling you why… Natural Capital is coming to town!” isn’t quite good enough…

NatCap13 Happy Christmas!

Last month, around 500 business leaders, policymakers, academics, and environmentalists convened in Edinburgh for two days to discuss the ‘natural capital’ approach to achieving economic and ecological sustainability. The core messages at the World Forum on Natural Capital revolved around a number of central themes. The first was the need to move beyond the ‘soft appeal’ of the ‘sexy’ concept of natural capital, to the ‘hard task’ of getting down to the business of mainstreaming it into the economy. The concept may have gained traction, with this Forum proving the proposition, but we now must move from conceptualisation to action. Nothing new there, you might rightfully argue. The second theme was about the need for more engaging narratives and stories, not only about successful application of the natural capital approach itself but also of genuine and sustained collaboration and dialogue that have resulted in that success. Perhaps, again, nothing really that new there either. Collaboration and dialogue are the linchpin of system-level sustainable transformation; the latter cannot occur without the former. True we need more of this, and we need to hear more about this, and there is merit to repeating this many times until this way of working is mainstreamed. However, perhaps not such a revelatory comment.

Where themes picked up pace were with regards to levels of confidence that this was the future; the world was going to be swept along by this new wave of radical thinking, like it or not. You were either in – or far out. Jochen Zeitz, the man behind PUMA’s Profit & Loss Accounting, argued that we may not have found the right tools and metrics just yet, but they will materialise, and all business will be using these by 2020. David Steuerman, Business and Biodiversity Programme Officer at the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, pointed out that going back 30 years and asking people then if they wanted the digital technology revolution, and all the upheaval and radical change accompanying it, to take place, more than likely it would have been utterly rejected. Accounting for ‘natural capital’ is the same – but it will happen. Likewise, Alan McGill, Partner, Sustainability & Climate Change at PwC, echoed these sentiments, saying that natural capital is the first signposted industrial revolution we have ever had. It will happen because if business wants to survive, it better start accounting for its true and full costs – or risk being completely left behind. What everyone needs, however, is to understand this shift better so that we can all prepare, and buckle up for the bumpy ride.

A spoof ‘Great Nature Sale’ protest at the Edinburgh meeting of the World Forum on Natural Capital

Perhaps those who might be most frightened about the prospect of inevitability and an ‘it’s-happening-with-you-or-without-you mindset’ are the protesters who set up camp down the road from the Forum at an alternative gathering ‘World Forum on Natural Commons’.  I had sympathy with their perspective on the Forum as a closed-off, elite group of ‘the great and good’ as Jo Confino described it (although perhaps ‘greatly bad’ from the protesters’ point of view), seeing as it was held in a closed venue, with exclusive prices, exclusive (delicious..sorry..) catering, and exclusive VIP attendees. Their argument that ‘nature’s not for sale’ is not stupid. It is not naïve either. There are real concerns as to what the full implications of the ‘natural capital’ approach could mean – biodiversity offsetting is the beginning – and it’s not a huge leap of the imagination to consider commodification and increased privatisation of our natural assets as an unintended outcome. In a recent Guardian live-chat on natural capital, the question ‘How is it possible to prevent a surge of privatization / dispossession once the “true economic value” of nature is revealed?’ was asked. Not all panelists answered, (this silence is itself interesting..) but Gerard Bos, Head of Global Business and Biodiversity at IUCN, stated that ‘this will be difficult to prevent and true economic value could drive the wrong behaviour’. Marije Schaafsma Senior Research Associate from the University of East Anglia emphasised the need for collective action to counter this, citing the public uproar in response to government attempts to sell off our forests last year as a key example. Indeed these risks point to the need for government regulation, sound policy, and civil society accountability. Thus, I was heartened to see at least a couple of people address the voices of the protesters, and acknowledge their value, to some extent. Richard Spencer, Head of ICAEW Sustainability, urged the Forum not to dismiss messages such as ‘nature is not for sale’ too readily and arrogantly. While we need more collaboration, this does not mean a ‘cosy party’ but constructive disagreement – real dissonance and debate should be welcomed. We also need to address the clear loss of trust, or loss of social capital, in the financial system that this wholehearted rejection of the natural capital approach represents (more on this in my next blog…)

However, it is the seemingly blanket ideological and wholehearted rejection that worries me – and much of it seems to be based on misunderstandings or misinterpretation. For example, ‘valuing’ the true worth of nature is not the same as ‘putting a price’ on nature. As TEEB’s Pavan Sukhdev explains, ‘value’ is the worth or benefit you receive, while ‘price’ is what you pay, or are willing to pay, in a market. No-one is trying to put nature up for sale. But let’s make damn sure that that doesn’t happen by engaging the public in shaping the discussion and the necessary policy frameworks. The motivation behind the natural capital approach is a good one; to go from a system which treats nature as worthless and destructible, to one where what is ‘priceless’ is truly accounted for and made visible. Protesters need to recognise and believe that most of the people at the World Forum, if not all, have that good intention in mind. Believe it or not, we share a common purpose – to protect our planet. The concepts of ‘natural capital’ and ‘natural commons’ may have more in ‘common’ than defendants think – so how about a ‘conceptual commons’ discussion?  What we need to discuss are the merits of the solutions on the shared table – like the turkey on our Christmas spread, natural capital accounting needs to take central place here as its promises are highly succulent and juicy, even as it may also proffer very real but manageable risk of salmonella if not properly cooked…  (Forgive my bird-brained Christmas puns here….;) oh dear…)

Likewise, those at the World Forum need to be aware that continuing to leave the public and wider NGO community (who have been relatively silent on this issue… bar Friends of the Earth with their bees campaign, which they interestingly semi-blush behind in this blog I came across which nevertheless echoes my thoughts I think) out of these discussions will only serve to polarise debate, rather than bring it into constructive friction. As one of the conclusions of the Forum described – collaboration requires trust, shared vision, and open and honest dialogue. Tony Juniper argues in a recent Guardian article, we need to start building meaningful dialogue now with sceptics, critics, proponents, and evangelists alike, or else, I argue, face 1000+ protesters and business who won’t want to touch natural capital with no_ordinary_capital (1)a ski-pole at the next World Forum in 2015, which will make for a far slower, bumpier, and altogether uncomfortable ride in the sleigh to NatCapland… and perhaps the disappearance of that which we value most on planet earth in the meantime.. I believe we are both on the same side, we just haven’t sat down and had enough mince pies and mulled wine together.

PS – Has Santa accounted for his natural capital yet? Well, as a start, he was appointed 2013 ‘Ambassador for European Forests’..

*NB: When I wrote this I was working as the Development Officer for the Natural Capital Initiative. All views expressed here were my own. Since writing this and leaving the NCI I have changed my views on the above, becoming increasingly sceptical of the natural capital valuation approach… More on this later.