Monday, May 2, 2011


(There may be some economic jargon in this post.) In a world full of products and gadgets and materials extracted from nature, we use the word "goods" to describe anything and everything that can be moved around for personal profit or utility - food, fabric, metals, and electronics. There are of course public goods (say, something like clean air) and private goods (say, a car). Public goods are those things that we all need (and now want), the existence of which we hope will be taken care of by large organisations we've created, like governments. Private goods are those that are available primarily to those who have the ability to buy them. Generally, like in the US, depending on what you think the right approach is to deal with large scale problems is, you might think that the problem should be privatised, or should be made public. We can make things private goods, or public goods. There are of course several issues that arise because of this, but I don't want to delve too much into them. What I do want to focus on is the word "goods."

As you can tell, we have used the word "goods" to describe those objects we've become so accustomed to in our lives, many of which we feel are indispensable. Yet, it is hard to deny that in the creation of "goods," we've done significant harms to everything that allowed us to produce the "goods" in the first place. I think it is particularly ironic that we use that word, because it obscures what actually happens to make those objects. In fact, many bads, by most everyone's standards, have to happen to make these "goods" for us. We may trample on the grounds of indigenous peoples to extract metals, we may dam their rivers to produce power, and we may cut down rainforests to produce timber for furniture. The military is a wonderful oxymoron that typifies this issue - we want "security" and therefore we must produce weapons that necessarily make others insecure.

There may have been times when the "goods" were produced at a scale that didn't disturb nature and culture locally that much, let alone globally. But given the ever-increasing production of "goods," we of course step over limits of nature and ecosystems and the abilities of people to cope with these interventions. We have overstepped limits to such an extent that it is indeed ironic to say that some gadget is a "good." How might we be able to redefine what a "good" means? Is there another word that we can use that adequately captures the essence of our choice? Clearly, "commodity" does no better. Rather, it encourages us to view objects and nature as things to be "consumed."


  1. If your biggest concern is any sort of consumption maybe instead of picking on things like furniture (seems fairly pragmatic to me?) population control should be your biggest issue? Many of the problems of consumption weren't an issue before the population became so large. Unfortunately for environmentalists population controls are met with far more aggression than nearly any other proposal. See the following video for an argument warning against population growth:

  2. Absolutely agree. Again, I am just trying to illustrate my point with an example that people can relate to and not feel overwhelmed. The main issue that I have come across in talking to people about environmental issues is the hopelessness ...they feel because of scale. So, if there is anything that can bring it home, that can make people see that their choices are part of that whole, and that any realisations must be realised in our own lives most importantly, I'll make use of that example.