I Know the Price, But What Does It Cost?

“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”— Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

With these words scholar and activist Raj Patel begins his new book The Value of Nothing. “We’ve come to believe that the only way we can value things is by sticking them in a market,” he says. “The trouble is, as we’ve seen through this recession, that markets are a tremendously bad way of valuing things, tremendously fickle.”

We think, for example, that we know the price of a BigMac ($3.57), but do we consider the real cost? If that cheap imported meat was grown on land that used to be rainforest, what is the cost of the rainforest, the increase of greenhouse gases, the loss of biodiversity, rare animals and plants? You mean you can put a dollar value to that? Yes, you can. Furthermore, if that tomato was grown in southern Florida by workers held in slavelike conditions, what is the cost to them? Then there’s the health aspect, fast food being on the public enemy list for causing lifestyle diseases such as diabetes. What is the cost to the American economy for treating diabetes? You get the picture. When all is tallied, that BigMac could well cost hundreds of dollars. Of course, those costs aren’t passed on to you the consumer– until later.

In case you haven’t noticed, this way of thinking is not exactly part of the Western Industrial worldview. You mean, actually to consider the cost to other human beings, to creation, to the planet, of the choices we make each day, the cheap food we consume and clothing we wear? In fact, it’s based on a way of thinking and living that is as old as human culture itself: call it “community.” I know, a radical word, right?

Alan Greenspan recently admitted before a Congressional committee that he had “found a flaw” in his own fundamentalist free-market model. If that model has failed, asks Patel, what do we replace it with?

Last year’s Nobel Prize in economics was given to an American, Elinor Ostrom, for her analysis of a kind of economic governance called “the commons.” The commons are resources that are collectively owned. In her study Ostrom showed how some cultures interact with ecosystems to maintain sustainable resource yields, thus preventing ecosystem collapse. In other words, these communities hold resources, such as forests or water systems, in common and find a way to use them without destroying them.

Unregulated capitalism has brought us unbridled greed, unsustainable growth, climate instability, pollution, slavery, and a widening gap between rich and poor. It’s time we put a price on that.

For more of Raj Patel, click here, here and here.

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