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What are the true costs?

The value of things comes up all the time, as we estimate the financial impact of different courses of action; but it often seems that long-term, environmental, social, or human implications are left out of these equations.

A recent Guardian article on the price of urban trees is an example: we calculate risks and costs in determining a plan for managing these things, but articulating their value in terms of ecosystem, historical legacy, and mental wellbeing is so much harder to quantify (see Notes One).

Figures are somehow more solid and foreseeable than other concerns and consequences, but letting them govern matters is questionable and risks a one-sided understanding of life, what makes it worth living, and the impacts our choices have. I mean, everything creates a reality: how we act towards others; how we consume in terms of diet, lifestyle or culture; and the industries we support. All these things have a cost and value, and not just financially.

So, taking society to be ‘the way we do things’, our actions sustain or re-create these systems; feeding into a bigger picture of our values, priorities, and ideas about life (Notes Two). Everything can be seen to have human, social, natural, and systemic implications or costs. This picture can be viewed from an economic perspective, but that’s far from all it is.

With regard to the consumption of products, our choices feed industries, practices, standards, and cultural norms; having a social consequence in the example we offer to others as much as for those employed across the globe. Both within our own environment and in remote centres of production, our lifestyle choices are significant statements.

Then looking at regulation, the observance or disregard for legal or other conventions serves to either sustain or weaken our communities (Notes Three). It might seem without consequence if we ignore some rules, thinking no one cares enough to stop us and if they do we can just ignore or intimidate them; but these things surely strain the fabric of society.

And in cultural life, the attitudes and standards we adopt around what makes a person worthy of respect, admiration or courtesy shape the social world we inhabit. Glances, words and gestures directed towards others signal how we perceive their value; much as that might be informed by commercial or status-driven concerns.

Clearly modern life brings with it an inundation of images and information, testing our capacity to discern what matters. And as social creatures we tend to go along with things, not wanting to miss out or appear old-fashioned. But in all this it seems the social and environmental costs might be pretty considerable, as the underlying ideas filter into how we relate to one other and the world around us.

It might seem harmless, an extension of ‘how things have always been’, or part of systems we have little control over; but looking only at money may mean overlooking much that’s essential to holding together systems, relationships and environments we genuinely rely upon.

Notes and References:

Note 1: Values and the economic
Note 1: Nature tells a story, about society
Note 2: Created a system we seek to escape?
Note 2: Complicity and cultural attitudes
Note 2: Individual responsibility, collective standards
Note 3: Laws and lawlessness
Note 3: Antisocial behaviour & the young

Then there’s “Small is Beautiful” which also touches upon issues of environment, values and consequences.

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