Thursday, January 5, 2012

Money - Comparing apples and computers

I have been spending a lot of money recently, and realised that I haven't written much about it in several weeks. But I have been thinking about what money lends and affords me, and how it affects my choices, which inevitably have ecological and social consequences.

When we want or need something, we are always confronted with the choice of how to "pay" for it--we can exchange for it our services, count it as a favour or a gift or donation, or as is the case in most social transactions, exchange money for it. When we want to pay for something with money, we pay for it its "value"--apples are $1.69 a pound, a laptop computer is $699, getting a car repaired costs $40 an hour in labour fees, and so on. Money thus has the tendency (and ability) to assign numeric values of money to an object or service, and that's super convenient. But consider this, if apples are $1.69 a pound, and a laptop computer costs $699, is a laptop "worth" 413 pounds of apples? I am not so sure. What about if the price of apples sky rockets to $2.19 a pound? Then is the computer "less valuable"?

As you can see, the complexities that this presents are manifold, and one might question the reasonableness of making such comparisons. But, in the end, we are always making these decisions, and I want to unpack what such decisions mean for our environment. One might think that solving issues of hunger are more basic than issues of access to the internet. Many would argue that access to internet is now a "human right", but that aside, the impact of spending money on 413 pounds of locally grown, pesticide-free apples on the environment is likely far less than a computer. Yet, they are both "worth" the same amount of money.

Money is absolutely unable to account for all of the ecological costs of a product or service. The way in which a group of people, say, the West Papuans value a mountain is very different than the way Indonesians or Australians value a mountain. But when viewed under the lens of money, swept under the rug are these different valuations; what we are left with a number, and someone's "willingness to pay" for something.

As individuals, we prioritise our expenditures--the basics (food, clothing and shelter) generally come first, followed by gas for our cars, cable and internet, and so on and so forth. But, crucially, from a macroeconomic standpoint, our governments do not really care about what money is spent on, as long as money is spent. Indeed, ecological disasters such as oil spills can be viewed as "beneficial" to the economy because of the money spent on cleanup services and the like. What we are doing here is making apples to computers comparisons of the value of the biophysical world, and the importance of the biophysical world, to at times fictitious values presented to us by money.

I have heard the argument (way too many times) that degrading the biophysical world is no problem, as long as we leave the future with "enough money" (or "value", whatever that means) or a "large enough" "economy" to deal with the problems of environmental remediation. What I highlight in response to such inane arguments is that first of all, we do not know what the future is going to "value", but we do know (or hope) that the future still needs air, land, and water to survive. Secondly, the fads and fashions that prop up the economy are just that--ephemeral. The "value" of the existing housing in the US dropped vastly in the past years, resulting in many people's mortgages to be higher than the actual "value" of their homes. How sad this situation is, given that the house is still a house, able to provide shelter. What is the "value" of shelter?

And so, when we monetise the value of many objects and services, when we commodify nature and the environment, we end up many times comparing apples to computers. I can understand that different people value different things differently (ethically and morally), but what money does is allow, even for a split moment, comparisons that just do not make sense.

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