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We still treat nature with contempt in Sheffield

Until we change what we value, we risk further destroying the living world we depend on.

We have a habit of seeing nature in our towns and cities as a nice-to-have – an optional extra. The living world is used by property developers to brighten up an otherwise drab block of flats, or by local politicians to add a touch of ecological decoration to a (gulp) regeneration masterplan. How many ‘living walls’ still fulfil the operative word in that phrase after a year or two?

In treating nature as an ornament, we forget that it was a part of our city before we were. Sheffield was built at the confluence of five rivers, all of which hosted thriving ecosystems before any humans, buildings, or regeneration schemes came along. Today, Sheffield likes to see itself as “the greenest city in the UK”. It’s a neat marketing line, but is it really true?

Over the past decade, the most high-profile story about Sheffield in the national media has been the street tree scandal. This saw groups of activists resist a system that had become mired in perverse incentives, institutional cover-ups and a bunker mentality.

Heeley street trees

Street trees in Heeley.

Terry Robinson on Wikimedia Commons.

Despite their actions, which altered the course of the disastrous Streets Ahead program, 5,600 street trees were felled before campaigners were able to put a stop to the work. And although the council have now promised a new approach to street trees, the reason why so many were felled in the first place is still hardwired into the way our city is run.

Account for yourself

We do not value nature in Sheffield. I’m not talking about individual residents, who often place immense value on the living world around them (residents of Hallyburton Road in Arbourthorne are currently fundraising to plant trees on the street for the first time). I mean in terms of how we collectively factor nature into the way our city is run – as a non-human resident of Sheffield.

At its heart, this is an accountancy problem. The value of nature – both in terms of what it provides to us humans and for its own sake – isn’t counted on balance sheets. In the traditional model of economics, which is rapidly driving us towards earth systems collapse, nature is considered an “externality”.

This is a critical flaw in the current economic system. Without nature, our economy (alongside every other system on earth) would collapse. The first residents of Sheffield knew this, when they decided to establish a settlement on the banks of the rivers they depended on (that some sections of these rivers were buried underground by the Victorians is almost too perfect a visual metaphor for our attitude to the living world since then).

We could, and should, invent new types of accountancy that factor in harm caused to non-human entities like rivers and habitats. We would then suddenly find that all sorts of activities that are currently immoral but perfectly legal and immensely profitable, like drilling for fossil fuels, would become unviable overnight. At the same time, industries and activities that seek to undo the damage we have caused to the living world, like lab-grown food, would suddenly become viable.

Shane rounce 3ttc QQD5in U unsplash

A view down the Porter Valley. How do we value non-human residents of Sheffield, like trees and wildlife?

Shane Rounce on Unsplash.

In the absence of any form of sustainable accounting, the protection of nature is left to a patchwork of laws and regulations about what companies can and can’t do. These range from inadequate to non-existent. Even if rules are in place, they’re scarcely enforced. At a fundamental level, these threadbare protections run counter to the overwhelming incentive for companies to exploit and extract from the living world for profit.

The boring revolution

Indy Johar of Dark Matter Labs, who Opus is working with on a project to demonstrate systemic change in Sheffield, calls this transformation in what we value “the boring revolution” (in what other revolution are the barricades manned by accountants?).

“The real design problem is not drawing a tree on a plan,” Johar told the RIBA Journal, about how designers can contribute to enhancing nature in our built environment. “It’s the accounting, and doing that in a way that doesn’t put money over other forms of currency, like love and care.”

His team are building experimental forms of software that can take the value of nature into account. One example is TreesAI, which is designed to measure the value of urban trees using dozens of different metrics, such as the positive effect they have on biodiversity and soil health, their benefits for our mental health, their cooling capacity in the summer and their contribution to reduced crime. The software even measures their financial value (street trees make nearby properties more desirable).

Using AI and machine learning techniques to crunch huge amounts of data, TreesAI opens up the possibility that one day every individual tree in Sheffield could be accounted for – and taken into account when we make decisions collectively.

Love, care and hope

But why stop there? If we can account for the natural world, we could account for all sorts of things that aren’t measured on typical balance sheets but are the things that make life worth living. We could find ways to account for love, care, art – even joy. In this way, we could disincentivise companies from taking a course of action that reduces the amount of joy in the world.

Jonny gios SQQ81 Ujpo W4 unsplash

The Welsh Government have started valuing progress using measures beyond GDP.

Jonny Gios.

But our present system of accounting and designating value mostly does the opposite: it incentivises activities that harm us as humans and destroy the natural world.

Take GDP, a standard measure of economic progress which was never intended to act as a measure. It makes no effort to measure harm, and it classes environmental degradation as an ‘externality’. If someone in Sheffield gave up an unpaid role caring for a relative to become a full-time drug dealer, the UK’s GDP would go up. This is clearly a perverse outcome.

Some countries are taking tentative steps to take both harm and social benefit into account. Governments in New Zealand, Wales and Bhutan (the country has a “happiness index”) have all experimented with incorporating wellbeing into their metrics for success.

But we need to go beyond the public sector to avert catastrophic climate breakdown and earth systems collapse. We need to hardwire both the value of non-human entities like rivers and aspects of human wellbeing into systems of accountancy used by the private sector as well.

We need to make it economically unviable, not just unethical, for a multinational company to chop down part of the Amazon, release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere or to take a course of action that makes millions of people more anxious.

Take a leaf out of my book

Of course, in the current system organisations sometimes choose to do right by nature, even if this is illogically marked down as a ‘loss’. Under pressure from campaigners, Sheffield City Council spent additional money on engineering solutions to repair broken pavements without felling more street trees.

But so often this happens on a discretionary basis. It takes a politician, usually under pressure from their constituents, to go against the grain of what we currently value and account for in the city. They then have to justify why they’ve done something that will appear on council spreadsheets as an expenditure. In other words, they’re doing the right thing but working against the system.

If we had a system of holistic accounting in place a decade ago, all 5,600 of our felled street trees could have been saved – because it would make no economic sense to chop them down. The cost of re-engineering the pavement would have been overwhelmingly outweighed by the social, environmental and intrinsic value of the trees. It would have made no sense to lose them.

Thanks to AI and other technologies like blockchain, we now have the means to build these kinds of systems cheaply and at scale. We can really value nature for the first time in Sheffield – not as a nice-to-have but on an equal footing with us, as a non-human resident of our city.

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