More palaces for the people, please

The titular Palaces for the People in Eric Klinenberg’s latest book are libraries, so described by Andrew Carnegie as he built 2,800 of them in a lasting act of philanthropy. The book is a hymn of praise to libraries in particular but also all the other components of ‘social infrastructure’, places where people meet face to face and form relationships that are the warp and weft of a resilient society. This includes school playgrounds, local sports pitches, some bookshops and cafes, parks – the locations of community. The book starts with Klinenberg’s earlier work, reported in the excellent Heatwave, which explored why certain apparently similar communities experienced very different ‘excess’ death rates in the 1995 Chicago heatwave.

Palaces for the People: How to Build a More Equal and United Society picks up from this, pointing out near the start that having strong social capital in the heatwave was equivalent, in terms of mortality outcomes, to having an airconditioner in every home. One of the aspects of the new book I like is its emphasis on the interactions between different kinds of wealth – not only social but also conventional ‘grey’ infrastructure and the natural too. It’s long been obvious to me that there is no point in investing in concrete if you don’t think about natural capital alongside it, flood defences being the canonical example: green infrastructure such as downstream wetlands can be far more effective. Klinenberg points out they can also be designed as social infrastructure – put a park there, make a feature of the green space for enjoyment and also people’s physical and mental health, and the benefit of community relations.

The book distinguishes the social infrastructure from the social capital it enables to be built on top of it, a distinction I haven’t thought about a lot. Another point is that this lens puts the focus on place-based policies, rather than on individuals. In the heatwave example, all the individual characteristics an economist would typically control for on the right hand side a regression would have led you to predict the same mortality outcomes in all the deprived areas of Chicago, whereas it was the place they lived rather than their level of education or criminal record that affected people’s probability of succumbing to the heat.

As the book concludes, there are two reasons to think seriously about reinvesting in social and natural as well as conventional infrastructure. Climate change is one reason – New York City is going to end up under the sea. Concrete alone won’t prevent that. When a crisis hits, the only thing left to help people cope – is other people. The other is the all-too-evident impact of deindustrialization. The chickens of the 1980s and 90s have come home to roost, and they turn out to be monsters. Yet governments on both sides of the Atlantic are still cutting the facilities that make it possible for people with not much money and little hope for the future to cope: parks, playing fields – and libraries. The book doesn’t actually answer the ‘how’ of it’s subtitle, but it’s well worth a read.

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The release of ONS figures on the consumption of physical materials in the UK got some attention earlier this week. The statistics show that in both total and per capita terms, there has been a long term decline in the amount of stuff involved in economic activity, although it’s still just over 10 tonnes per person each year (down from 15 tonnes in 2000). The new figures take account of trade and the fact that the UK is a net importer, particularly of manufactures – figures for earlier years, which also suggested a decline in the ‘weight’ of the UK economy, did not adjust for trade. The ‘resource productivity’ of the economy is increasing so we now get nearly £3 worth of GDP for every kilo of materials, up from £1.87 in 2000. The one resource whose use is not trending down is fossil fuels.

What’s the explanation? The same ones as 20 years ago when I wrote (free pdf) The Weightless World: the switch toward services and intangibles, the miniaturisation and use of lighter materials in products such as fridges and cars, the combining of many products (phone, camera, tape recorder, map etc) into one (smartphone), the dematerialisation of goods and services (books to e-books, CDs to downloads). Much more recycling, too.

[amazon_image id=”0262531666″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Weightless World: Strategies for Managing the Digital Economy (Obex Series)[/amazon_image]

Isn’t this good news? Tim Jackson (of [amazon_link id=”1849713235″ target=”_blank” ]Prosperity Without Growth[/amazon_link] fame) comments grumpily in this Guardian article that he doesn’t believe the figures: “You do see these micro trends of peak stuff, but the idea we’re living in a peak stuff world is nuts.” Not for a moment am I relaxed about the environmental impact of economic growth (and I just joined the Natural Capital Committee because of my belief that we need to do much better at stewardship of our natural assets – see Dieter Helm’s [amazon_link id=”0300210981″ target=”_blank” ]Natural Capital: Valuing the Planet[/amazon_link]). Yet I am, you know, pretty happy that this trend is repeated across the OECD and that the UK is doing particularly well in terms of reduced material consumption.

There has been much comment about the UK’s dismal labour productivity and multifactor productivity performance of late. There is probably some mismeasurement, but not enough to explain the flatlining. We ought though to recognize the improved productivity of some physical (buildings, sharing of assets) capital. And this trend in resource productivity, £ of GDP per kilo of materials used in creating it, is welcome:

Real output per kilo of material used, UK 2000-2013

Real output per kilo of material used, UK 2000-2013