The silent extinction of the truffle kingdom

Could climate change lead to the complete extinction of truffles? BSc Financial Economics with Accounting student Nada Hinic explains.Mushrooms on a forest floor

         “All that is gold does not glitter,
          Not all those who wander are lost;
         The old that is strong does not wither,
         Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”

         (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring)

Could climate change lead to the complete extinction of truffles? According to some scientists, it is quite possible: the increase of dry and hot weather in the regions of Italy, France and Spain can lead to a very serious situation for truffles, with the possibility of them disappearing completely in these regions by the end of the century. This would mean that the delicacy, which is already dizzyingly expensive and can be compared to the price of gold, would reach the value of an even more incredible level.

Average retail truffle prices in 2019

Source: https://truffle.farm/truffle_prices.html

We can find strong evidence in historical articles on culinary culture that 18th and 19th century Europeans consumed truffles abundantly, from which it can be concluded that this fungus was not expensive. In the last 100 years, crops in the regions of Italy, France and Spain have decreased from a harvest of 2,000 tonnes a year to just about 20, due to global warming, acid rain, and, more recently, heat waves and reduced rainfall.

Scientist Ulf Buntgen, in his latest study ‘Black truffle winter production depends on Mediterranean summer rainfall’ (for which he used 49 years of continuous harvest and climate data from Spain, France and Italy) claims that truffle production rates from November to March significantly rely on previous rainfall from June to August, and that too much autumn rain adversely affects the later winter harvest.

The question might be asked how the market manages to survive. The logical answer would be that dealers have turned to alternative sources. Truffles themselves are not uncommon. Many sources in Europe still under the radar are producers in Croatia, Poland, Serbia, Albania … where they grow the same species as in the three most popular European regions. Why is that so? Truffles that are claimed to come from France or Italy (regardless of country of origin) achieve a premium price.

China has been, for several years now, the largest producer and exporter of truffles in the world. However, the quality of Chinese truffles is not satisfactory to any world standard, so their market price is very low. Australia and New Zealand are also on the horizon, but their production only covers their local demand. With the greatest sadness, one must also ask: will the Australian truffle market survive the devastation brought by the recent forest fires? The US has also entered the market recently, but it cannot be considered a serious competitor to the Europeans as yet.

All the sources combined are not enough to keep up with the demand for this delicacy. In 2019, a pound of quality black truffle cost about $650, and white almost $2000 (however the price soared again in November 2019). In 2017, due to too much drought in the previous year, the yield of white truffles was so weak that the price of one pound of white truffles skyrocketed to $4000.

Average white truffle prices (USD/lb)

Source: https://truffle.farm/truffle_prices.html

London restaurateurs charge around £5 per gram of truffle shavings, claiming they make no profit on truffle, but the reason for the offer is the quality of the dish: ‘only few shavings can turn the dish from ordinary to extraordinary’.

Because of their hidden underground life cycle, truffles have aroused the interest of many scientists and many mysteries about them have now been revealed, though not all.

Truffles are hypogenous fungi: that is, unlike mushrooms on stems, they grow underground. Buried, their interaction with the rest of the living world is very complex. They depend on their hosts on which they feed, which are primarily oak and hazelnut trees and fir trees. The development of truffles is a wonderful harmony between the tree and the truffle itself: the tree provides the truffle with sugar and the fungus gives the tree nutrients from water and soil. Fertilisation depends on the animals they can feed with their trunks, not on the wind, to spread its spores. To attract the attention of animals, when truffles mature, they turn on their spectacular scent, sending signals to anyone available to them that they are ready to be excavated so they can be dispersed.

But if truffles are so rare and desirable, why not just grow your own? The answer is that truffle cultivation is harder than it looks, and many scientists have addressed the issue. In recent decades, techniques have been developed to vaccinate tree seedlings with truffle mycelium, but the process is still difficult and does not necessarily guarantee that truffles will mature. Italian white truffles do not respond to these techniques at all, while French black truffles, on the other hand, are more susceptible to domestication.

Leading countries by truffle production in 2017 and 2018

Source: Leading countries by mushroom and truffle production 2018 (source: https://www.atlasbig.com/en-us/countries-mushroom-truffle-production) Leading countries by mushroom and truffle production 2017 (source: https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-world-s-top-producers-of-mushroom-and-truffle.html)

The irrigation technique remains a safe method to preserve the survival, especially of the white truffle, as Buntgen observes in his work, but this also has its limitations. Recognising the vulnerability of the sector, there is a need to further foster stronger connections between farmers, politicians and scientists in order to maintain environmental and economic sustainability under the predicted climate change in southern Europe.

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Brexit – a death knell for UK birds?

The UK’s wildlife is under pressure. A no-deal Brexit would only damage it further.

A skylark

Skylarks in the UK – soon to be lost?

The State of Nature Report 2019 paints a bleak picture of the condition of birdlife throughout the United Kingdom – the UK’s departure from the European Union will only exacerbate this. According to the report, since 1970 the abundance and distribution of the UK’s species has declined with “no let-up in the net loss of nature” in recent years.

Since 1970, 41% of all UK species studied have declined and the report concluded that intensive management of agricultural land is the key contributing factor. The clearest evidence of this is the report’s findings on farmland birds – these species have been hit particularly hard by farming intensification, as shown by the 54% decrease in the Farmland Bird Indicator in this period (fig. 1).

fig 1 - British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), www.jncc.gov.uk

fig 1 – British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), www.jncc.gov.uk

While there are some exceptions to the trend and recent initiatives by Defra and the EU LIFE programme have helped to stem the decline, once-common birds like lapwings and skylarks, yellowhammers and grey partridges are fading from our countryside.

Farmers – friend or foe?

The UK’s farmers have long been seen as protectors of the countryside, but in a competitive environment the industry has resorted to increasingly intensive farming methods.  The land available for farming – the Utilised Agricultural Area (UAA) – has remained around 70% of the total UK land since the 1980s (ONS) and without more land available, farmers have been forced to improve productivity wherever they can, resulting in intensification of production methods (fig. 2).

fig 2 - Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs - https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets

fig 2 – Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs – https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets

The productivity index for UK farmland shows an ever upward trend – new technologies play a part, but intensive land management is the key driver of these gains.  For arable farming, intensive farming methods include increased pesticide use, planting multiple crops per year, the reduction in fallow years and extensions of planting seasons, while for livestock it is rotational grazing, higher livestock concentration and overfertilisation of pasture.  All methods impact wildlife.

Self-sufficiency

According to DEFRA, the UK is 61% self-sufficient in all foods – if, from January 1, the UK tried to survive solely on domestic production, we would run out in mid-August.  Much of this production deficit is filled by goods imported from the EU – in 2018 £19.1bn of the £24.3bn deficit was with EU 27 countries.

fig 3 - Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs - https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets

fig 3 – Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs – https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets

While the NFU has urged the government to focus on improved food self-sufficiency following Brexit, a trade deal with the EU is crucial to secure food provision. The UK government is working towards a trade agreement, but the timeframes envisioned by the Prime Minister make a satisfactory conclusion in this area unlikely. A 2018 report focusing on potential trade agreements between the UK and the EU, produced by LSE Consulting, noted that the “agricultural sector…is often highlighted as one of the most sensitive sectors in trade negotiations” and as a result “there may be limitations on what is attainable” when it comes to any trade agreements, particularly regarding tariffs. Products could potentially be sourced from alternative trade partners, but in the short term it is likely that the UK will look to domestic farmers to fill any shortfall.

Freedom of labour is not a topic which this blog has space to address, but 8% of UK agricultural workers are EU migrants with an uncertain future in this country (House of Commons briefing paper – 7987).  Farmers face the prospect a decreasing labour supply alongside a demand spike.  Increased demands will have to be made on the land available for production and intensification will only escalate, exacerbating wildlife decline.  Unless a trade deal can be reached with the EU the pressures from intensive farming will not ease in coming years and our countryside will be increasingly dangerous for our birds.

This blog was contributed by Henry Mummé-Young, MSc Politics, Philosophy and Economics student.

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Introducing Birkbeck’s MSc in Governance, Economics and Public Policy

Sue Konzelmann, Programme Director, shares the rationale behind this interdisciplinary Master’s.

When, as in 2015, one group of economists publicly support proposed new economic policies in the press – immediately resulting in another set of economists reaching for their word processors with an entirely opposing view – it’s a pretty fair bet that the ensuing debate will be at least as much about politics as economics.

Nor is this anything new; John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Von Hayek routinely traded blows in a similar public way between the two World Wars, influencing politicians and governments of very different shades in the process.

You might think that you’d be on firmer ground with corporate governance and its more legally based rules. That is, until you remind yourself that those rules are also largely set by government – and that the views of Clement Attlee’s 1945 socialist government and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government less than forty years later would have been as wildly opposed on corporate governance as they were on pretty much everything else. Whilst Attlee’s government was part of what is (yes, you’ve guessed it) debatably described as the “Keynesian consensus”, Thatcher’s handbag was famously home to Von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.

However, in spite of these three subjects – economics, politics and corporate governance – being inextricably linked, they are usually taught separately, an approach which inevitably loses much of the richness of what is, after all, a game that anyone wanting to influence public policy will have to learn to play.

There is, of course, no rule book to follow. Such rules as there are, may be rewritten at any point in time, and for a variety of reasons – but that’s what allows policy to evolve in response to a changing world, changing conventional wisdom or changing politics. It’s a heady mix.

Birkbeck’s new MSc in Governance, Economics and Public Policy not only shows how each of these areas influences – and is, in turn, influenced by – the others; it also sets them into their academic context and relates them to real world events and outcomes.

Although the course was initiated at the suggestion of the Progressive Economy Forum, which has strong links to one of the two opposing groups of economists already mentioned, the course will be taught by colleagues from three of Birkbeck’s world leading Departments – Management, Economics and Politics – with a wide variety of perspectives.

I anticipate that there will be some lively discussions with and amongst the students as well. As a result, one of the first rules to go out of the window, will probably turn out to be the one about never discussing politics in a pub!

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Banking by day, Birkbeck by night

Mina Yau studied the BSc Economics with Business at Birkbeck while working full-time at the Bank of England.

I applied for the Bank of England school leaver programme after completing my A-levels in Economics, Accounts and History. After a successful application, I was able to start full time at the Bank of England. This meant I chose to work instead of pursuing further education, however I did not want to regret this decision and miss out on university. As such, I decided to take on further studies after my one-year probation at the Bank. It was difficult to find a university where I could continue working. However, Birkbeck gave me the opportunity to pursue further education whilst working full-time by offering evening classes (and an extra bonus of part-time studying across 4 years).

The Economics, Maths and Statistics classes at Birkbeck really helped develop my career in the bank as they taught me the necessarily skills for my day to day role. Whether it was better understanding how the economy works, the maths behind the metrics or even data programming – Birkbeck really helped widen my knowledge and skill set.

At the Bank of England, I started as a school leaver in the Data and Statistics Division, where I would collect data from banks and building societies via our internal systems and process this to specialist teams. After, I moved to the Financial Stability, Strategy and Risk directorate, working in the Macrofinancial Risks Division in the Households team. Here I was able to deep dive into risk metrics relating to Households and built a very strong understanding on housing data. I then moved to the bank’s Resilience Division where I currently work; this is similar to my last role but more focused on risks and the resilience directly to banks.

Diligence is fundamental for balancing work and study commitments. Often, late nights are required at work, which meant I was unable to attend some lectures. Luckily Birkbeck does have facilities such as room recordings which means I am able to catch up with classes over the weekend. Thankfully, the Bank of England is also filled with talented colleagues who are able to explain and help with any queries on the classes or homework which makes studying a lot easier.

If you’re in doubt on whether or not to apply to Birkbeck due to work commitments, I highly recommend just going for it. It’s an excellent learning opportunity and gives high rewards. I can proudly say that not only after four years at Birkbeck (part-time study) I have completed my degree, I also have five years’ experience at the Bank of England to go with it.

Finally, I’d like to mention Tony Humm, a fantastic lecturer for Maths for Economists – it’s a very well taught class and definitely my favourite module! If you have a choice, I highly recommend taking this class!

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Building an (Inter)Disciplinary Career

Lucy Tallentire from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics explores the challenges and opportunities in interdisciplinary studies, raised in a recent seminar from the TRIGGER Project (Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research). 

Gender is pertinent to many disciplines, from literary theory to anthropology, film studies to linguistics, and sociology to geography. However, these disciplines sometimes differ in their approaches to how and why gender is studied. So what are the challenges in a field of study that spans several disciplines? And how can scholars make the most of their interdisciplinary roots?

These were just some of the questions considered at a recent event on negotiating careers as a gender studies scholar within a mainstream discipline. In her welcome address, Professor Helen Lawton Smith, who led Birkbeck’s participation in the TRIGGER Project, said: “Over its four-year lifespan the objectives of the TRIGGER project became more than just to support women in Higher Education, but to champion equality and what Birkbeck can do to support diversity.” Organised collaboratively by the Birkbeck Gender Sexuality (BiGS) research group and the Birkbeck TRIGGER project, this event is the first in a series of seminars that will be the TRIGGER project’s legacy, supporting PhD students, early career researchers and aspiring professors.

The seminar took the form of a conversation between Dr Kate Maclean, Director of BiGS, and Dr Gabriela Alvarez Minte, who recently completed her PhD at Birkbeck after many years of working in women’s rights at the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). As a feminist geographer who started her academic career with a PhD in Women’s Studies, Kate reflected on her unique experience of completing her doctorate and moving straight into a career in the “mainstream” Department of Geography:

“It is widely acknowledged that gender, queer, and feminist theory is some of the most intellectually challenging theory across the social sciences and humanities. However you may still face challenges as a gender studies scholar – it is not as prevalent an attitude now as it used to be, but intra-departmental dynamics can be difficult!  And it can be difficult to find a network of people to develop your ideas with – particularly important in the early stages of your career. ”

The conversation then moved to discuss the ways in which the challenges of an interdisciplinary field can be overcome. A real breakthrough for Kate was realising the need to network with other feminist scholars in different departments. When she found that other, even senior, staff were facing similar challenges, she organised a meeting for feminist academics across the institution to come together and discuss the need for a space as feminist academics – for both research and mutual support. The size of the meeting was a real testament to the need for this network, which gave them a space to knock around ideas in a very constructive way. As a result, the Gender Matters @ King’s research group was born.

Taking questions posed by the audience of early career researchers, both Kate and Gabriela were able to reflect on their personal academic journeys. Gabriela sees herself as a combination of academic and practitioner and discussed the benefit of field experience: “working at UNIFEM was extremely beneficial to the development of my ideas and drove me to fill out the knowledge I lacked in gender and development”. Kate recognised that she was lucky to go from a PhD straight into an academic teaching and research position, but emphasised the merits of postdoctoral research opportunities, which allow a unique insight into a different field, the benefit of another’s experience and good networking opportunities. Like in any other profession, networking is very important in academia, and refreshments after the seminar offered participants an informal opportunity to engage with one another’s work, ask questions, and learn from one another.

You can find out more about BiGs and TRIGGER on the Birkbeck website.

Click here to find out more about future seminars.

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How one student makes the most of his 24 hours a day

Samuel Harris, second year BSc Financial Economics student, discusses how combining work with study is furthering his aspirations as part of National Work-Life Week.

Time. It is perhaps the most valuable commodity an individual owns yet we all have 24 hours a day to spend as we see fit. That’s 1440 minutes or 86,400 seconds where we all make individual choices that may or may not have consequences that shape our future with most choices made in the hope it will create a better future. Getting my work-life balance is vital, in my opinion, to avoid burnout in my future career path and aspirations, and will help me be the best I can be as a person, socially and academically.

So, what are my future career aspirations? I’m writing as a member of the Birkbeck Economics and Finance Society and I aspire to, one day, own my own financial investment firm. Financial services and especially investment banking makes the news consistently on the topic of work-life balance for the wrong reasons. You hear the stories of graduates spending 80+ hours a week in the office but to me, I see people chasing a dream – a dream to be the best and to be affluent. To me, work-life balance is about always enjoying what you do, whether at the office or wherever your workspace might be, as well as when you’re out with friends or doing a hobby. If you enjoy what you do, you won’t burn out!

I am starting my second year on the BSc (Hons) Financial Economics course this October and I currently work full-time doing either 7am-5pm, 9am-5pm or during the university summer break, occasionally 9am-9pm. I am always described by my friends who are at traditional universities as crazy and the most frequent comment I get is “how do you do it?”

The answer? Very simply. Whilst they are partying away, I’m studying here in a 6pm-9pm lecture. Whilst they are being lectured to, I’m working gaining practical experience. No amount of reading or memorising will make you successful in life because it is the understanding and application of wise thought that counts – and that is what Birkbeck is all about. I will be job-market-ready. I still have the time to see my friends in London at the weekend after I finish my university work and I make visits to my friends further afield at other universities 3-4 times a year. Whilst sacrifices must be made, and don’t underestimate the sacrifice needed to work full-time and study full-time, I don’t overestimate it either as it is very feasible with a strong work ethic. It’s not for the faint-hearted and I must stress the necessity of a strong work ethic! Working part-time is also an option.

The most important piece of advice I would give to fellow students is not to lose focus on why you do what you do. Whether it is that you are academically inquisitive, or you are hoping to change career, or to become better at your current one, commitment is key. There will be challenges along the way. Being glued to my desk and the library during exam season and using every available term holiday to prepare is just the beginning. You’ll find time goes very quickly and your external commitments will need to be tapered. I manage my time by using a diary on my phone and I put everything in, no matter how small or insignificant.

Life as a Birkbeck student is tough and unforgiving but it could possibly be the best decision you ever make. Everyone who studies here has unique life experiences and you can use one another as a sounding board for great ideas and experiences. Make the most of your time here and you won’t regret it.

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Overcoming mathematical anxiety with customised support

evaszatmariDo you have a fear of mathematics?  Have you always avoided percentages? Do you want to run away when you see algebraic expressions?  If you think it is time to conquer your maths demons, then Eva Szatmari can help.  Eva works for the School of Business, Economics and Informatics, and enables you to customise your learning and go at your speed through her one-to-one sessions. She tells us how she can help you solve your maths and stats knowledge and support you in your studies.

Eva, what do you do?
I help students learn mathematics and statistics, working one-to-one. When he/she comes into my office, I always start by asking what would they like to work on. In this way, I am tailoring the session to the individual student need.

I also run workshops in which I try to make sure that everyone in the class is able to follow the teaching, so no one is left behind.  I make sure I create an atmosphere where students feel safe to ask questions that they think might be too simplistic in their usual lectures. Birkbeck students have very busy lives so I have made video tutorials available online including instruction on Boolean logic, the binary number system and various scientific calculator tutorials so students can access my help wherever they are. More details of this can be found here.

Could you tell us a little bit about your role and the kind of support you offer?
Students who have maths anxiety often have previous life experiences that discourage them from ever wanting to learn maths again.  Suddenly on some degree courses, they are forced to come back to maths to ensure they complete their course.  I would like to prove to them that maths is enjoyable, rewarding, and accessible to anyone.  Therefore my challenge is forensic – to detect the right mode and language for communicating to each student.  I make sure I create an encouraging environment where students can ask even the most basic maths or statistics questions.

Why is it important to offer a customised approach to learning?
The School of BEI recognises that customised approach to learning is important and it adds to the experience a student can have at Birkbeck.  We want to give every student the necessary support to excel in their studies. This ties into Birkbeck’s central mission to offer flexible education to meet the widely varying needs of our students and to help them fulfill their potential and their ambitions.

Have you seen this approach make a practical difference?
Definitely yes!  I would like to give you two examples of students I helped.  One of them had severe maths anxiety and approached me for some extra tutorials not believing he would understand it.  He had no maths experience because of disruptive schooling.  We started with the basics, and gradually he got really to like maths and he enjoys the course he was on more because he no longer feared the relevant sessions.  He went on to pass his maths exam which was part of his course.

I am not here only for the weakest students, but to help anyone at whatever level.  In another example, a student came to see me needing a 1st Class Honours degree to get on her chosen Masters and I am happy and proud that she got accepted for Oxbridge to do what she wanted.

It has repeatedly been shown that there is a correlation between better numeracy skills, and better life chances – the higher your mathematical abilities, the higher your job prospects and your earning potential.

Why is this customised learning approach unique?
There are many initiatives out there which provide support for literacy skills, but considerably fewer that develop numeracy skills. This is particularly true at university level. This customised learning approach makes a real difference to improving the confidence and mathematical skills of students. This means they may achieve more in their courses than they would otherwise and often they surprise themselves at what they can do.

Birkbeck is in itself unique when compared to most other universities for two particular reasons. A significant proportion of students are already in full-time employment, or they are hoping to use the skills they learn at Birkbeck to change their existing careers. There is a particular need for additional numeracy support in the School of BEI, where mathematics may feature significantly in a course or module, but where many students join from a different academic discipline, or from a professional environment where they have not used formal mathematics in the same way.

Finally, how can BEI students at Birkbeck get in touch with you if they want to work with you?
They can email me on e.szatmari@bbk.ac.uk to book a one-on-one session. These normally last about an hour. They can also see the BEI Workshop Timetable on my staff web page for module specific workshops.

The sessions I run are completely confidential, and it’s important that students know there’s no need to be embarrassed about asking for assistance – it’s what I’m here for. It’s worth any student who is unsure about a particular aspect of mathematics coming, especially with exams on the horizon!

 

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Declutter your cupboard if you want, but it won’t save the planet

This article was written by Professor Frank Trentmann from Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. It was originally published on The Guardian

clutterIs this the year we finally get to grips with all our stuff? If so, it has been a long time coming. Forecasters and commentators say we have entered a new era where people prefer to share rather than own, and prize experiences over possessions. Retailers worry about the implications for them of a public sated on “peak stuff”. Official figures suggest that Britons are consuming ever fewer resources. And witness the worldwide success of the rationalisation bible, Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organising.

It’s an encouraging thesis with which to start a new year. If only it were true. The talk is of the sharing economy, but the reality is that very little is being done on a large-scale level to reduce our high-consumption lifestyles. While it might feel virtuous to Marie Kondo your wardrobe, we urgently need to address the vast amount of often unseen resources that support our modern way of life.

To be fair, there are some signs of hope. The first repair café opened in Amsterdam in 2009. Since then, a thousand of these places have sprung up across Europe and North America, giving people a chance to share tools, materials and knowledge.

The bulk of the so-called sharing economy, however, follows a different model. On New Year’s Eve more than half a million people on the planet stayed in a home rented via Airbnb. Much of this is not about sharing but about renting and profit. It increases the demand for resources, rather than reducing it. Hotels earn less, but hosts earn more – which they spend on additional holidays. Lodgers save on cheaper accommodation and take more mini-breaks to Florence and Barcelona. Meanwhile, the total number of people owning second homes (and a second set of domestic appliances) steadily rises.

Car clubs have become a common sight. But let’s put it in perspective. In the UK, Zipcar has 1,500 cars. At the same time, Britons bought more than 2.7m new cars last year, more than ever before. Yes, perhaps, young people are less car-oriented today, but it might also just be a lag – housing costs and university fees have gone up and mean that cars are bought at 30, not at 20.

Sharing is not some new paradigm. Modern societies have done it for a long time – from the cooperatives to municipal baths and playgrounds. While growing in some commercial sectors, we are seeing it being chopped down in others, such as public libraries.

The story of “from stuff to fluff” is a similar mix of hopeful thinking and bad history. Visits to film and music festivals have sky-rocketed in the last decade. But let’s remember that more than 12,000 people flocked to the rehearsal of Handel’s Fireworks in 1749 in Vauxhall Gardens, causing a three-hour-long traffic jam on London Bridge. Experiences have been an essential ingredient in the rise of consumption over the last 500 years, from pleasure gardens to football stadiums. Nor is it wise to think of possessions and experiences as separate: since the 17th century, shopping for pleasure has been about making purchase a sensation.

Commentators have been complaining of people accumulating too many possessions since the sumptuary laws of the 15th and 16th centuries. In ancient Rome, Seneca warned the young were being corrupted by the pursuit of things and leisure, and before him so did Plato.

Today, services make up a bigger share of the world economy than ever – more than 40% in value-added terms, compared with 30% in 2008. But this does not mean the volume of goods and merchandise has fallen. It has grown in total, just a bit less fast than services. Since 1998, merchandise trade has more than doubled. More than four times as many containers travelled back and forth between Europe and Asia in 2013 as in 1995.

And a lot of leisure and other “experiential” services depend on material and resources. Zip-wiring in a jungle might feel more virtuous than buying a designer handbag, but you do not get there by teletransportation. In 2007, the French travelled 42bn kilometres to pursue their hobbies and another 12bn to eat out. That takes a lot of fuel.

A hybrid Toyota Prius might save petrol, but it eats up valuable rare-earth elements.

A hybrid Toyota Prius might save petrol, but it eats up valuable rare-earth elements.

Our love of digital services often leads to the idea that these somehow must be ethereal. But behind virtual communication there lurks a lot of physical matter: power stations, data centres, cables, batteries and cooling systems. Our mobile phones and headphones would not work without lanthanides. A hybrid Toyota Prius might save petrol but it also needs 9kg (20lb) of rare-earth elements, and that’s just for its battery. Information and communications technology already account for 15% of the service sector’s electricity consumption in France.

Adam Smith, the great moral philosopher and economist, noted in his 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments that people spent more and more on “trinkets” and “little conveniences” and then designed new pockets in order to carry a greater number. Today, you can buy magic jackets with a dozen, even 20 pockets, to accommodate a tablet, phone and other digital devices.

We are not dealing here with a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. Contrary to popular image, Scandinavians are not that austere either. In Stockholm, for example, the number of electronic appliances tripled between 1995 and 2014.

The idea of peak stuff rests in part on distorted and inadequate numbers. At the Office of National Statistics’ latest count (2016), the average Briton consumed 10 tonnes of raw materials and products in 2013, down from 15 tonnes in 2001. That looks heart-warming, but is a bit of an optical illusion. For it only counts the materials used in the UK. We are considered to have used more fossil fuel and minerals if we make a car in Luton with British coal and iron and steel than if we import a car made in Brazil or Poland. We really need to know about all the materials used. In effect, since the 1980s, Britain has off-shored the environmental consequences of its own consumption.

What’s needed is a level of thinking and a scale of action commensurate to the problem. By all means, buy fewer gifts next Christmas, but don’t fool yourself that this will accomplish much. Shopping is part of it, but our entire lifestyle is using up resources at unsustainable levels. Consumers carry a big, heavy “ecological rucksack” on their shoulders full of all the materials needed to service their lifestyle. It amounts to between 45 and 85 tonnes a year per person, depending on where you are in the rich world. This includes leisure, travel and comfy homes with central heating.

Changing that lifestyle must be the fundamental focus. This is not impossible; modern history is one rich story of successive lifestyle changes. But these have rarely been the result of individual choices. States and social movements played critical roles, harnessing the power and moral authority of collective opinion. If we are to bridge the gap between aspiration and achievement, this must be their task again.

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Did the London 2012 Olympics boost the British economy and make us all happier?

This blog was contributed by Mark Panton, a researcher from the Department of Management at Birkbeck, in reaction to a recent publication by the ONS, which links GDP to special historical events. Mark tweets at @MarkLPanton

olympics-227178_640As a researcher of the use of sport events and stadiums in regeneration projects I was interested in a   recent graphical representation of how special events are linked to UK Gross Domestic Product (GDP) put out by the Office for National statistics (ONS). The representation showed a sharp spike in GDP at the time of the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.

There has been a long-running debate within sport management about whether or not hosting major sporting events can have an impact on local or even national economies.  At first sight this ONS graphic, together with its accompanying text, sets out a very positive case for the 2012 Olympics.  The highest growth for nearly seven years in the UK was recorded in the third quarter of 2012 when it increased by 1.1% over the previous quarter.   This included increased output in the food and beverages industries, accommodation, employment agencies and creative arts and entertainments.  Was this conclusive evidence for the economic impact of a major sporting event?

Further explanatory details were provided by a separate ONS document.  Due to an additional day of holiday in June for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, there was one fewer working day than usual in the second quarter.  This was estimated to have shaved 0.4% off growth in that period with a ‘bounce-back’ of the same amount in the third quarter.  Another relevant aspect was that the sales of Olympic and Paralympic tickets, clocked up over a long period before the start of the Olympics and totalling £580 million, were all allocated to the third quarter of 2012.  This figure contributed 0.2 percentage points to overall growth.  It should also be noted that the same document details a drop in tourism in this quarter, with a significant dip in numbers visiting London.  Far from the conclusive evidence that might have been imagined from the graphical representation.

However, there was some good news for those looking to stage major events and the local communities. A detailed report by Oxford Economics on the impact of the London Olympics suggested the event may increase residents’ happiness, which could translate into increased consumer spending. This claim was based in part on research linked to the 1996 Euro Championships in England. The report acknowledges that the evidence for such effects is mixed and no figures for increased spending around the London Olympics based on happiness have been found.

Researchers from the LSE did find that Londoners were significantly happier during the Games compared to Parisians and Berliners, but that levels of happiness returned to normal the following year. More critically, researchers in the USA have argued against the use of “psychic income” (emotional and psychological benefits for residents related to sporting events) to support public subsidies for stadiums or events, with the concept being used as the “new frontier in subsidy apologias”. The arguments over the economic and psychic benefits of holding major sporting events are likely to continue.

Listen to Mark in a discussion on Sports stadiums on the Birkbeck Voices podcast.

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National Living Wage: From Classroom to Newsroom

How teaching from a Birkbeck BSc Economics module ended up in the FT

mouse and ftOn 1 April, 2016 The Financial Times reported the results of a survey of UK economists on whether the government’s new national living wage would do Britain “more harm than good” (against) or “more good than harm” (for).

Professor Stephen Wright, of Birkbeck’s Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics, was one of four UK economists whose views were quoted at some length in the article. He has since published his comments in full on his personal web page.

“It was good timing” said Professor Wright. “When I got the email from the FT, a few weeks back, it was the day after I’d delivered a lecture on exactly this topic, so I had all the material to hand”.

The lecture Professor Wright had just given was for the module, “Current Economic Problems”, given to 1st year undergraduates on Birkbeck’s new BSc Economics programme, which admitted its first students in 2015/16. Students receive a lecture on a particular economic problem one week, and then, the following week, are required to give a presentation on some aspect of the problem, speaking on one side of a debate.

As well as helping to improve students’ communications skills, the module is also intended to show students that the economics they learn from textbooks and in lectures can be applied to practical problems faced by policymakers. Other topics covered in the module this year include immigration, “Nudge”, inequality and the gender pay gap – but topics will change every year depending on what is in the news.

Prof. Wright concluded that, on balance, the national living wage could prove harmful – but with the caveat “that the harm may well be as much from muddying the water as from the actual economic damage done.”

Predicting the impact

Working under the premise that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, believes the corporate sector (or more precisely, the low wage corporate sector) should share some of the burden of mitigating poverty, Prof. Wright concluded that basic economic analysis suggests it unlikely to work as advertised: that“…ultimately consumers of goods and services produced by the low wage economy will pay.”

He argued that the most optimistic perspective you can put on this outcome is that such consumers are possibly less likely to come from the lower end of the income distribution, thus if there was zero impact on employment in the low wage sector, the policy would be mildly redistributive. However, if unemployment in the low wage/low productivity sector increases, this effect would be offset.

Acknowledging that the evidence for adverse employment effects of minimum wages is “pretty muddy”, Prof. Wright goes on to explain that, on the basis of standard textbook models, the extent of any employment losses in the low wage sectors will depend on the elasticity of demand for their goods and services. Indirectly the evidence seems to be quite strong that in the long term these effects can be quite large (viz, for example, the steady fall in the number of pubs in the UK, as drinking in pubs becomes progressively more expensive relative to competing activities).

“If the existing low wage sector contracts it is not clear where those working in it (who typically have low productivity and skills to match their low wages) will go to work instead. But just as important I believe, is that these policies muddy the water. Wages are a very blunt instrument to tackle poverty.”

Case study: The London Living Wage

To demonstrate this, Prof. Wright cites the Greater London Authority (GLA)’s calculations of the London Living Wage (“A Fairer London: The 2015 Living Wage in London”). When the GLA calculated living wages ‘bottom-up’ by looking at the consumption needs of different household types, they got very different answers for different households. Indeed, the small print of the GLA calculations show that, given the current system of benefits, their calculated living wage for a family of two working parents is actually below the current minimum wage.

Drawing from this, the FT quoted Prof. Wright’s key conclusion, that “…a single Living Wage, built up from consumption needs, is not a logical construct: if it had any basis at all it should be a set of living wages, for different household types (but with the bizarre implication that, in the current benefit regime, having children would result in a reduction in the relevant Living Wage).”

“My personal view is that poverty reduction for those in work can be, should be, and already is carried out by government benefit policies. The tax credit system was one of the great unacknowledged success stories of Gordon Brown, and I’m pretty sure that it has been the primary factor behind our sustained low unemployment rate, and the resilience of employment during the recession. It seems a shame to start to throw this away just as it has really proved its value.”

Birkbeck is known to provide the highest quality teaching, which can be applied to the workplace. For BSc Economics students on this occasion, what Prof. Stephen Wright was teaching them went from their classroom to a highly respected media publication.

All enrolled students in the School of Business, Economics and Informatics at Birkbeck, University of London can subscribe to FT.com for free through the Birkbeck e-Library.

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