On valuing the intangibles

I’m watching the building opposite lurch skyward, day by day, block of concrete by protrusion of steel wires. Slowly the green vista beyond disappears. The reservoir that flattens the view across to Walthamstow, that offers a mirror to the clouds as they congregate and mingle and dissipate, that provides sanctuary for the birds I hear talking to each other as I savour my morning coffee. 

Hard to explain how this feels, as on the one hand it appears so irrational, yet on the other it appears completely sane. Is it not sane to feel the loss of even a visual connection with the natural world in such an urban setting? That the rising blocks of flats are like concrete shutters in my world already hemmed in on three other sides. Yet on the other hand isn’t it irrational? Should I really be surprised? It was going to happen, an open patch of old industrial land doesn’t last for too long around here without it being turned into an investment vehicle for those from the UK and beyond with money itching to be invested. 

I feel for my neighbours who have bought their flat to live in. First there is the service charge, then the lock in to a heating and hot water provider you have no choice over and no control over their standing charges, which you pay even if you never turn the heating on. Then there’s the fire hazard in the balcony and cladding, identified in the post-Grenfell inspections of all high-rises and which has resulted in first a ‘walking watch’ and then replacement works, due to start soon and be pretty disruptive. To round it off, flats that once had an amazing view across the largest urban wetlands in Europe are now seeing that view disappear, day by day, block by block. I wonder what premium they may have paid to have a flat on the side facing the waters, and how the loss of that is felt, in terms of utility and personal wellbeing. 

The intangibles are so rarely considered. Even when attempts are made to quantify the aesthetic, such as in compensation payments to those affected by a new motorway, they seem to be cosmetic attempts to pop a value on things that lie truly beyond monetary value. Economics values those things that generate or support narrow definitions of ‘growth’ even when they are contradictory, such as in the use of fossil fuels, as such measures seem quiet on the resultant impact on the environment and people. Equally, we don’t value time spent volunteering, or looking after relatives even though this is clearly valuable to society; we under-value core professions such as carers, teachers, nurses and other front-line staff. The very people we were clapping for during Covid19 are now forced to strike in demand of a sensible wage. And, of course, the only way to ‘progress’ (earn more money) in these roles is to get further and further away from the people you were originally drawn to serve. 

I wonder the extent to which the crises we are now living through will ultimately render this extractive form of capitalism mute. Because we can be sure it’s not sustainable to human life on earth. A more inclusive view of what we value might be a step in the right direction. This is a topic I will post on to end the year with a long read in which I will attempt to summarise many of the ideas and thoughts that are bouncing around my head at the moment.

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