Wednesday, December 1, 2010

How we undervalue

I am taking a break from writing about boycotts to make sure I can capture in words some fleeting thoughts. Much of what I have been writing about over the past eight months has been about value - how we value objects that have embodied in them tremendous amounts of effort and resources, how we value the resources that provide us the capacity to make these objects, and how we value social interactions (here, here, here, here for starters). Trash lies at the heart of each of these valuations; indeed, trash is the result of our undervaluation of these things. An undervaluation of these things allows us the liberty to treat people and nature as we please, without care and respect.

We have a tendency, almost a knack, to undervalue almost everything that surrounds us - people, place, object, and nature. We undervalue the kindness and love of our parents, we undervalue the smile and eye contact of people we walk blindly by, we undervalue the beauty of a snowy morning, and we undervalue an untamed river. We think of everything in the world as fungible, people included (That is why people deem it fit to kill other people or put other people in harms way, especially in conflict. To such people, a person is just a person, and there is nothing more to him. Not all of the experiences that that person has been through, or the conversations and friendships that that person has had. Nothing. Especially in conflict, people are fungible.) That's the only way we can assign monetary value to all of these things - a well raised child can provide $X more for our economy than one that was raised in the inner city and grew up with gangs, a snowy morning (like the one recently in Seattle) probably caused us to lose a lot of economic value (gosh, if people can't go to work, then, then, gosh, we are losing money!), a mighty river, if tamed, can provide jobs to many hundreds or thousands of people, and generate economic gain. The only reason why Transocean did such a inept job at drilling the BP-Macondo well was because they (and the government) undervalued the impact a blowout would have on the ocean, the fish, the birds, and the people of the Gulf.

What is the value of this fish and the water around it? (Photo by Joel Sartore from here.)

Indeed, due to the complexities of systems around us, both natural and man-made, we will never be able to assign any accurate value to anything in this world - we will continue to undervalue everything, because no one is willing to say that a life, or a river, or a rock, or an experience is priceless. What if we had the humility to not assign monetary value to something? What if the only way we could value was through observation, feeling and emotion? I must admit, at times it is overwhelming to me now to see a neatly stacked pile of plastic containers, knowing full well that within the day, they will be on their way to a landfill.

(Speaking of value, here's an article about how much of what investment bankers do is socially worthless.)

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