Monthly Archives: October 2014

Culture is not a luxury, it is an economy’s bread and butter

Professor Andrew Thompson, Director of the Centre for Imperial and Global History at the University of Exeter, discusses the effects culture has on the economy.

Culture, as described by one celebrated critic, is among the most awkward words in the English language. So it comes as no surprise that cultural value is an ever-elusive, indefinable thing. The broad and diffuse nature of the concept has meant that many economists steer clear of it, reluctant to co-opt culture into their debates about development.

And so discerning the influence that culture has on the economy is something of a holy grail in the ongoing quest to establish cultural value.

The case for spending public money on culture is greatly weakened by this failure to fully get to grips with its relationship to the economy. At a time when the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ warns that up to 60 per cent of public sector spending cuts are yet to be implemented, the arts and cultural sector more than ever needs to make its case to government – and it needs to do so in a manner comparable to claims made by other competing calls on the public purse.

Several enquiries, including that of the Warwick Commission, are currently seeking to open up new ways of thinking about cultural value. They are very welcome, even if they are not the first and will doubtless not be the last to do so.

What price culture?

Those making a case for the benefits of culture invariably do so in two ways. First, culture is said to have intrinsic value. Museums, galleries, theatre and libraries, by enriching and illuminating our inner lives, have a humanising effect. For this reason they should be cherished (and invested in). Second, the tangible or instrumental value of culture is also stressed, for example in terms of jobs generated by tourists visiting heritage attractions, or the money people spend when they visit museum exhibitions, or the recession-proof growth achieved by the creative industries.


Not only museums. Courtesy of Dan Breckwoldt/Shutterstock

But both of these methods have a major limitation. The idea of intrinsic value separates culture from the economy and assumes culture’s status as a public good, while the instrumental renders culture as a sector of the economy, alongside other sectors with which it has to compete. Neither leaves much scope for exploring culture’s importance for the economic life of the country as a whole.

So to push back on the idea that the arts and culture are a luxury rather than a necessity requires us to develop a very different type of dialogue about the relationship between culture and the economy. The time is ripe to do so. As Western hegemony is increasingly regarded as a chapter in world history, and China is poised to overtake America as the world’s leading economic power, a new narrative about culture’s relationship to the economy becomes possible, in a way it was arguably not 20 or 30 years ago.

Looking elsewhere

We might start by observing that economically successful societies are invariably culturally confident ones.

It’s a frequent refrain among today’s politicians, of whatever stripe, that creativity is driving the world’s higher performing and more technologically advanced economies. Creative societies can expect to generate greater growth, higher levels of productivity and more inward investment. Even economists – who fight shy of messy concepts like culture – acknowledge that economic factors alone are insufficient to explain why some countries get themselves on to a development trajectory and others do not. Following in Max Weber’s footsteps, the braver among them try to capture the macro-economic effects of culture.

Such efforts to reclaim culture by economists are welcome but hardly mainstream. The vagaries of human behaviour are such that they do not easily generate testable hypotheses or provide fodder for econometric models. Our intuitions may tell us that culture and the economy are strongly intertwined, but demonstrating this in an analytically convincing way (and generating the “proof” that might influence governmental policy) is another thing.

One way forward may be to look at what we can learn from a few of the negative scenarios: cases where culture has actively hindered growth. And we don’t have to look very hard in a world where conflict is all around us. By far the biggest challenge for many societies as they enter the 21st century is precisely how they make cultural difference and diversity work in favour of economic growth.

The World Bank has tellingly observed that “no low-income or conflict-affected state has yet achieved a single Millennium Development Goal” (2011). Because conflict inflicts such deep wounds on the fabric of society it is also hugely debilitating economically. Political solutions rarely address what happens after conflict ends. This opens the door to cultural interventions.

Belfast murals

Belfast’s murals are just one example. Courtesy of John Sones/Shutterstock

Culture and conflict

In South Africa, Argentina, Bosnia and Northern Ireland, to name but a few, growing prominence is being given to the contribution made by artistic practises to processes of peace building and reconciliation. Societies trying to work through difficult and divisive pasts are turning to the restorative power of drama, music, film and literature to break down walls of silence about atrocities, to allow victims to share their stories of suffering, and to rekindle the ability to imagine again.

The therapeutic value of the arts in releasing powerful emotions previously repressed is increasingly apparent. The upside economically is important too – one recent assessment of the global costs of violence estimates that GDP in 2007 would have been 14 per cent higher if there has been no conflict since 1960, equivalent to $9.1trillion. Meanwhile the world’s current violence containment expenditure is equivalent to a staggering 75 times its foreign aid expenditure.

It is in “post-conflict” societies that we see very clearly how, for better and for worse, culture is as much part of the economy as the economy is a part of culture. Yet the study of conflict calls for a much more nuanced understanding of culture – an understanding that encompasses culture as practice and performance (drama, literature, music, photography, for example) and culture as patterns of thinking, feeling and acting by groups of people who live in the same social environment.

When the West was economically ascendant a very particular set of cultural traits (trust, work ethic, risk taking and entrepreneurship) were widely held to have been responsible for its success. But with the BRICs making up a quarter of the global economy, things look rather different today. The idea that Western societies are culturally programmed to be more competitive simply seems far fetched. The relationship between the culture and the economy is clearly more complex than that.

“Political economy” is our shorthand for the interplay between the political and the economic. Why not a “cultural economy”? In every society the economic is embedded in culture. In economic terms this means that culture counts, even if it can’t always be counted. Yet a general field of cultural economy has yet to to be scoped out.

We need to better understand how attractive cultural environments lay the foundations for economic prosperity. We need to establish more firmly the link between cultural diversity and economic creativity. We need to open our minds to the freedom to engage in cultural activity as a necessary counterpart to the economic (and political) freedoms which we rightly prize. In a globalised economy we also need to be alert to how the arts and culture can provide a way of thinking about ourselves as a country and the challenges of adapting to a rapidly changing world.

In short, we need to devise better ways of bridging the divide between culture and the economy. Only then will we be in a position to understand those many dimensions of culture that affect economic success.

This post originally appeared on the Conversation.

Unpackage me: A Life free from Plastics

Researchers from the University of Exeter will attempt to live a life free from plastic during October and are calling for others to follow suit. Dr Jennifer Sanderson and Miss Lindsay Walker, both from the Centre for Ecology and Conservation, are undertaking the month-long challenge to help raise awareness of our dependency on plastic packaging.

Members of the public are invited to join the initiative by visiting the ‘Unpackage me’ website and pledging to not purchase any products that contain or use plastic for a day or more during October. 

Why are plastics a problem? The main issue with plastics is that they do not biodegrade. This means that every piece of plastic ever created still exists somewhere in the world.

Lindsay Walker finds #pointlessplastic on a beach clean

Lindsay Walker finds #pointlessplastic on a beach clean

In the UK alone 275,000 tonnes of plastic are used each year, which equates to about 15 million bottles per day. Most UK households throw away about 40kg of recyclable plastic per year.

Current global consumption of plastic has drastic consequences for global energy consumption, for our economy, and for the health of both marine and terrestrial wildlife.

It is currently estimated that oceanic plastic waste kills one million seabirds and over 100,000 marine mammals every year.

Plastic packaging has become such normality that we can use and throw away several tonnes of plastic every day without any thought to the consequences of our actions. How much plastic do you use every day? How much plastic do you need to use every day?

Dr Sanderson collects rubbish at a beach clean

Dr Sanderson collects rubbish at a beach clean

Plastics have become such a common part of everyday life that it is easy to assume they are a necessity. Jenni and Lindsay’s pledge to go plastic free for a month will hopefully demonstrate the various ways that anyone can reduce their plastic footprint on the world.

Anyone can join the campaign by visiting the Unpackage Me website and pledging to go plastic-free for a day or more during October. The FXU student led ‘Keep your Kool’ campaign have already joined forces with Jenni and Lindsay and pledged to go plastic-free for two weeks, how long could you go without plastic?

Unpackage Me will be launched on 1 October with interactive information stands, posters and a display of the plastic saved. This main event will be held in the Exchange Building on the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus where Jenni and Lindsay will be challenging students to sort a pile of plastic waste into different categories of recyclability in under a minute.

Students from Keep your Kool will join Unpackage Me on 1 October to showcase their campaign to reduce the use of plastic bottles on campus. They will be asking staff and students to pledge to ‘keep their kool’ and stick to reuseable water bottles rather than purchasing plastic bottled water.

Unpackage Me will be inviting the public to keep a look out for plastics in their Twitter-based weekly photo competition to find the product with the most pointless packaging (#pointlessplastic).

Throughout the month Jenni and Lindsay will be writing a daily blog on their website about the difficulties that they face and how they overcome the challenges of a life free from plastic.

The website also includes information about plastics, as well as initiatives to reduce, re-use, and recycle plastics. Together with dedicated Twitter (@UnpackageMe) and Facebook pages, the website will provide a forum for the general public to gain and exchange information of plastic re-use and explore the wider effects of our daily plastic choices.

Towards an all-electric future?

Dr Martin Elliott from EDF Energy discusses the electric vehicles’ rise in popularity, the different types of vehicle available and what the future holds for  their popularity.

This blog post first appeared on Climate & Us– a collaboration between University of Exeter, Met Office and EDF Energy that provides a place to talk about the challenges and opportunities presented by climate change.

We take a look at some exciting developments in electric vehicles, and whether they can really offer a sustainable long-term alternative to the petrol/diesel ones.

You’ve been working on electric vehicles (EVs) for a few years now. How do progress and innovation compare to the expectations you had when you started?

When I joined the team about three years ago, despite being a keen car enthusiast, I didn’t know much about electric vehicles. The thing that struck me straight away was how good they are to drive. They use regenerative braking, which harnesses energy that would otherwise be lost and uses it to increase the range of the car. It is really impressive, and together with the instant power from the electric motor, it adds to the pleasurable and relaxed driving feel.

From driving early prototype vehicles such as the MINI E back in 2012, I have seen how rapidly the technology has progressed since then. The latest production vehicles are refined, practical and desirable. Advances in battery technology and the use of heating and cooling systems on the cars has increased the efficiency of the vehicles and extended the driving range. You can also now charge them quicker and connect remotely through smart technology to switch the charging on or off and pre heat or cool the car before you even go out to the vehicle.

What have been the main triggers for progress in that area?

As more manufacturers begin to look at electric technology it increases the number of people working in this field. This increases the knowledge and skills base and also brings down the costs associated with their development and production as the products become more mass market rather than low volume niches.

Investment funding from the government in schemes relating to low carbon vehicle technology, vehicle purchase subsidies and charging infrastructure grants have all helped play a part.

Carbon emission reduction from transport is a key topic on the agenda around the world and more time and money is being spent on it. We are seeing multinational collaboration into research and development to share the knowledge and spread the cost.

Sales of electric cars are booming – registrations have more than doubled in the first half of 2014. Could you talk us through the different types of car available?

It is really encouraging to see the figures about booming sales, and even more encouraging to actually see the vehicles on the road. Driving home yesterday I saw four on my journey from Brighton to London, and that’s not including the one I was driving!

I purchased a Nissan Leaf earlier this year as my own personal car. The Leaf is a full battery EV which means that there is no petrol/diesel engine on board, and it can only be fuelled with electricity.

For those people that may need to go a little further from time to time, a range-extender may be more suitable. This type of vehicle has a petrol or diesel powered generator on board that produces more electricity to propel the vehicle until such time that it can be plugged in again.

A third type of electric vehicle is a plug-in hybrid. This type can be powered by electricity obtained by plugging into the mains, or powered by a petrol/diesel engine when the electricity has run out. They typically have a lower ‘electric only’ range than the range-extender, and the other main difference is that the petrol/diesel engine propels the vehicle when running, whereas the range-extender is always propelled by the electric motor.

Can you see electric cars ever becoming mainstream? Or do you think the future lies with other fuels?

I believe that the future of transport will be a mixture of technologies. This will certainly include electric power but it won’t be the sole fuel, and I see thing such as hydrogen also playing a part.

Electric cars are at a stage now when they are starting to become more mainstream. They are now being put together with petrol and diesel vehicles in showrooms and motor show stands, rather than being singled out as something different.

Public recognition and acceptance is also growing and I think over the next couple of years people will start to give serious consideration to them when making a new vehicle purchase decision.

Can electric vehicles achieve mainstream popularity?

Can electric vehicles achieve mainstream popularity?

What do you think will be the single most important thing needed for that to happen?

The single most important thing that I believe will increase EV sales is purchase price reduction. At the moment they are more expensive than an equivalent petrol/diesel and this really puts a lot of people off. Over the whole life of a vehicle an EV can be a lot cheaper than running a combustion engine (cheaper to fuel, no road tax, no congestion charge, lower maintenance, less BIK tax for company car drivers) but people don’t realise that and only see the higher purchase price.

However, things are starting to change on that front and a really significant milestone has been achieved recently by Mitsubishi. They have priced their new Outlander plug-in hybrid at the same price as the diesel equivalent. As a result they are seeing record sales and hopefully this could be the catalyst for other manufacturers to follow suit.

How much pressure would a wholesale adoption of electric vehicles (and the building of the necessary charging network) put on the UK electricity grid? And how much carbon savings would it actually deliver?

The ideal scenario for owning a plug-in vehicle is being able to charge it at home (for the public) or at a work location (for businesses). This way the recharging can be done overnight when there is spare capacity on the grid and generally cheaper tariff prices for using it.

Public charging such as on streets and in car parks is a good tool to give reassurance to people that they could top up while out if needed. However, research figures show that by far the majority of charging is done at home and work.

Overall carbon savings and ability to provide energy rely on a low carbon grid mix and it’s vital that the energy supplies around the world are decarbonised as much as possible to realise the benefits of electric vehicles.

You’ve been working with manufacturers, and organising quite a few test drives around EDF Energy’s offices, giving employees the opportunity to try the cars for themselves. What’s the reaction like on the whole?

Reaction to these events has been fantastic. The test drive slots were all snapped up within 24 hours of being announced and interest on the day at the sites has been great. We’ve seen crowds of people looking at the cars, asking questions, sitting in them and taking photographs. It’s been really nice for me to introduce electric vehicles to a new audience and to talk directly with people to dispel any misconceptions they may have. I have also had a couple of people say to me that they would now seriously consider an EV when buying a new car, whereas before the event they wouldn’t have.

And finally, what do you think is the most exciting electric vehicle right now?

There are two cars that I see as exciting developments and possible game changers in the EV market. Firstly is the BMW i8 sports car which has just been launched. This is one of the best looking cars around and coupled with the incredible driving performance, is providing an inspirational halo car for plug-ins.

Secondly is the Tesla Model 3 which is currently still in development. With this car Tesla are aiming to bring performance and prestige at a lower price. The product pricing is being targeted at the executive car sector of the market and could lead to rapid growth of electric vehicles amongst this high volume sales area.

Staying active as you grow older – a recipe for ‘ageing well’?

Wednesday 1 October is International Day of Older Persons; to celebrate, we have a blog from Dr Cassandra Phoenix on the demographic change in our communities and how the older people taking part in her research are embracing retirement, using it to explore new hobbies and pursue new activities.

Dr Phoenix is a researcher at the University of Exeter Medical School and European Centre of Environment and Human Health. She specialises in understanding how people maintain good health and wellbeing as they age, in her latest research has considered how physical activity can affect the ageing process – and how people feel about it.

We live in a society that is undergoing a dramatic demographic change. As 11 million post-war baby boomers march towards retirement, more than one in six people in the UK are aged over 65. In less than thirty years it will be one in four.

Combined with changes in social convention, such as smaller families and couples having children later in life, we’re experiencing a significant shift in the makeup of our communities.

Like much of the population, older adults often live inactive lifestyles and this can have a detrimental effect on both their health and wellbeing. Add to this a swathe of negative stereotypes about what can and can’t be done in older age – and the use of words like ‘burden’ and ‘care crisis’ – and older people could be forgiven for thinking they’ve already been condemned to the scrap heap.


As we increasingly see growing older as something to fear rather than embrace, we’re confronted with a period in our lives that’s stigmatised as a time to shut down and disengage. Commonly perceived as relics of a bygone age, older people are often viewed as being immobilised by frailty – out of touch and all too often, out of sight.

Yet the stories and experiences of many older people do not conform to these antiquated and outmoded stereotypes. They view retirement as an opportunity to explore new hobbies, activities and relationships, and could offer the key to helping us all age in a positive and active way.

Over the last two years our research team, based at the University of Exeter Medical School, has followed a group of active older adults as part of the Moving Stories project. We’ve talked to them about their pastimes, sports and hobbies, taken photos of them in action, and asked others what they think about their lifestyles and stories.

Moving Stories 500

Physical activity can have an impact on your experiences and perceptions of ageing

We’re hoping that by listening to their accounts of ‘moving’, we can understand how and why they’ve been able to deal with the challenges of growing older and being active that everyone faces. We also want to know what role all types of physical activity, rather than just exercise, can play in ageing well.

An incredibly broad range of people from across Cornwall signed up to take part and share their stories with us – from sea swimmers, dancers and golfers, to cyclists, walkers, bowls  and badminton players. Our participants ranged in age from a positively youthful 60 to a spritely 92 and continuously conveyed their enthusiasm and desire to remain fit and active.

We’re still analysing the huge amounts of data we’ve captured, but one theme has already emerged across the majority of people we spoke to and that’s the experience of pleasure.

The importance of pleasure is under-researched in health-related areas, particularly in relation to physical activity in older age. Pleasure can take many forms but in this context we’re talking about feelings that make a person feel good, including happiness, joy, fun, and tranquillity.

Many of our participants described so-called ‘sensual’ pleasures – such as the feeling of the wind in their hair when walking outdoors, and the gliding and floating sensations of swimming through the ocean or a pool. These types of experiences show signs of the human senses connecting people with their environment and providing feelings that help contribute to happiness and wellbeing.


We found that people also drew pleasure from documenting their experiences. Whether it was through keeping a diary or writing articles for community magazines, our participants felt a sense of pleasure long after the activity had taken place. So it looks as though it’s not just the activity itself that can give pleasure, but what happens before and after. We think this might be a really important mechanism for expanding the appeal of taking part in some form of activity, particularly in those for whom exercise alone does not appeal.

Perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, the active older people in our study also described the pleasure they derived from simply having a routine. The habitual nature of some of their activities gave them a structure that, in the absence of work, was very welcome. They also described the joy that intense focus can bring, enabling them to escape from – and gain perspective on – issues that demand attention in their everyday lives. This immersion in their activity served an important purpose and several participants reported an improved sense of wellbeing as a result.

So the experience of pleasure seems like an important factor in how and why people stay active. It’s also giving us an important insight into how we measure the impact of physical activity, showing that being active is about much more than just meeting recommended guidelines and preventing or managing illness.

Through the help of our participants we’re starting to uncover the other ways in which physical activity might enable us to ‘move’ through life (and later life in particular) in a positive and pleasurable way. We’re hoping that our findings will go on to influence the way that people are encouraged and empowered to stay active and we’re working with AgeUK and Cornwall Sports Partnership to help this happen.

If you’d like to find out more about our research, we’ve teamed up with TheatreScience to bring this project to life on stage. The play ‘Moving Stories – Moving On’ has been inspired by interviews with our participants and tells stories from their lives with a focus on their attitudes to health, wellbeing and ageing. The opening performance is free and takes place in Truro on 2 October 2014. More information can be found at