How can geographers evaluate the ‘value’ or ‘worth’ of different environments?

Clearly all environments have an economic or monetary value although for some this may not yet be realised or exploited fully e.g. Antarctica or the Oceans.  This means that all environments have the potential to generate material wealth through the exploitation of the resources they possess e.g. the presence underground of hydrocarbons which can be extracted as crude oil or forests which can felled to provide timber for construction. Geographers however are increasingly assessing the ‘value’ of environments in terms of the benefits they provide in much broader and relevant ways for the 21st century.

Some argue strongly that in the past environments have always in fact been undervalued since their benefits have only been evaluated against one criteria i.e. the material wealth it has the potential to generate for society.

Consolidate your thinking

Read through this newspaper article written by a journalist for the Daily Telegraph.  Underline all of the benefits that research at Michigan University suggests are generated from a ‘good tramp in the countryside’.  Do you think that any of these physical, emotional, spiritual or health benefits may also have an associated economic value e.g. regular walking has been shown to reduce the risk of chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, asthma, stroke and some cancers see:

NHS :Livewell and NHS: Stress, Anxiety and Depression

How might this save the National Health Service (NHS) money?

The following is an extract taken from a report of the health, emotional and economic impact a project that has been running in Sunderland for several years:

Boiler on prescription – Saves lives, saves money

A pilot project in Sunderland has been hailed a success with GP and outpatient visits reduced by a third.  Family doctors prescribing double glazing and loft insulation for patients living in cold, damp homes can transform lives and slash the huge sums spent by the NHS on cold-related ill health, a ground-breaking trial has shown.

The pilot project in Sunderland found GP and outpatient visits plummeted by a third after patients’ homes were made warmer and cheaper to heat to the tune of hundreds of pounds a year. The impact of cold weather on health is estimated to cost the NHS £1.5bn a year and over 18,000 people died prematurely last winter. However, energy bills have soared in recent years, leaving millions of people in fuel poverty and unable to heat their homes properly.

“We’re able to heat the whole house for the first time in god knows how long, it’s unbelievable,” said Margaret Boulton, who took part in the trial. Her husband John suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a serious lung condition made worse by cold, damp conditions. “Last year he had been into hospital five or six times. He was really poorly and we had a terrible Christmas. So far this year – touch wood – he’s not been in hospital once and his health is so much better. He’s much happier in himself because he’s not suffering.”

Kathleen Wold of the University of Washington, College of the Environment has recently emphasised the importance of the health and wellbeing benefits to people of interacting with ‘nearby nature’ such of engaging in such things as regular forest walks (what is known in Japan as ‘Forest Bathing’).  Evidence from clinical studies shows that people who are walking regularly in such forests all showed lower cortisol (a stress indicator) an increased immune function and lower pulse rates and blood pressure .

Forests and Stress article

Exmoor National Park in conjunction with Public Health Devon and Public Health Somerset has recently launched a three year pilot project which will see the issuing of green prescriptions to appropriate patients with the idea that the psychological and physiological benefits of getting out in the National Park would mean that some patients would not actually need medication from their doctor.

Now go to Investigation 3 -  What is the value of Britain's mountains, moorlands and heaths.