Values beyond price

Values beyond price


says that concentration on monetary values is at the root of the ecological crisis

man walking with baskets In the Vishnu Purana, the world is destroyed and recreated by the cosmic being when human values fail to maintain nature and society. Vishnu, the Creator, assumes the character of Rudra or Shiva, the destroyer, and descends to reunite all his creatures with himself. He enters into the seven rays of the sun and drinks up all the waters of the Earth, leaving the seas and the springs dry.

The reduction of all value to wealth and the exclusion of compassion and care from human relationships are among the factors that cause this dissolution. As the Vishnu Purana puts it: 'The minds of men will be wholly occupied in acquiring wealth, and wealth will be spent solely on selfish gratification. Men will fix their desires upon riches, even though dishonestly acquired. No man will part with the smallest fraction of the smallest coin, though entreated by a friend. The people will be almost always in dread of dearth and apprehensive of scarcity'.

The links between greed, scarcity and destruction that this story brings out are at the heart of the ecological crisis. The reduction of all value to monetary value is an important aspect of the crisis of scarcity generated by the process of increasing affluence.

It is often said that the roots of environmental destruction lie in treating natural resources as 'free' and not giving them 'value'. Most discussions in the dominant paradigm assume that monetary, commercial or market value is the only way of measuring or valuing the environment. It is falsely assumed that value can be reduced to price.

However, the market is not the only source of values, and monetary values are not the only ones. Spiritual values treat certain resources and ecosystems as sacred - there are also such social values as those associated with common property resources. In both cases, resources have no price - but a very high value. In fact, it is precisely because their value is high that these resources are not left to the market but are taken beyond the domain of monetary value so as to protect and conserve them.

The proposal to solve the ecological crisis by giving market values to all resources is like offering the disease as the cure. The reduction of all value to commercial value, and the removal of all spiritual, ecological, cultural and social limits to exploitation - the shift that took place at the time of industrialization - is central to the ecological crisis.

This shift is reflected in the change in the meaning of the term 'resource', which originally implied life. Its root is the Latin verb, surgere, evoking the image of a spring continually rising from the ground. Like a spring, a 'resource' rises again and again, even if it has been repeatedly used and consumed. The word highlighted nature's power of self-regeneration and her prodigious creativity. Moreover, it implied an ancient idea about the relationship between humans and nature - that the Earth bestows gifts on humans who, in turn, are well advised not to suffocate her generosity. In early modern times, 'resources' therefore suggested reciprocity along with regeneration.

With the advent of industrialism and colonialism, 'natural resources' became the parts of nature required as inputs for industrial production and colonial trade. In 1870 John Yeates in his Natural History of Commerce offered the first definition of this new meaning: 'In speaking of the natural resources of any country, we refer to the ore in the mine, the stone unquarried (etc).'

Regeneration denied

industrial wasteland By this view, nature has been stripped of her creative power and turned into a container for raw materials waiting to be transformed into inputs for commodity production. Resources are merely any materials or conditions existing in nature which may have potential for 'economic exploitation'. Without the capacity of regeneration, the attitude of reciprocity has also lost ground: it is now simply human inventiveness and industry which 'impart value to nature'. Natural resources must be developed and nature will only find her destiny once capital and technology have been brought in. Nature, whose real nature it is to rise again, was transformed by this originally Western world view into dead and manipulatable matter - its capacity to renew and grow denied.

The market economy is only one of the world's economies - in addition, there is nature's economy of life-support processes and people's economy in which our sustenance is provided and our needs are met. Nature's economy is the most basic, both in that it is the base of the people's and market economies, and because it has the highest priority to, and claim on, natural resources. However, development and economic growth treat the market economy as the primary one, and either neglect the others or treat them as marginal and secondary.

Capital accumulation does lead to financial growth, but it erodes the natural resource base of all three economies. The result is a high level of ecological instability. The anarchy of growth and the ideology of development based on it are the prime reasons underlying the ecological crises and destruction of natural resources. In order to resolve ecological conflicts and regenerate nature these economies must be given their due place in the stable foundation of a healthy nature.

Commodification of resources must be replaced by the recovery of commons. This involves the recovery of the domains of nature's economy and the sustenance economy, which, in turn, involves the recovery of the value of nature in its spiritual, ecological and social dimensions.

The dominant model of environmental economics promoted by the World Bank and major economic powers attempts further to reduce nature's economy and the sustenance economy to the market economy. Preoccupation with 'getting the prices right' can lead to a blindness to the fact that the market usually gets the values of justice and sustainability wrong.

The marketization of common resources is based on myths. The first is the equivalence of 'value' and 'price'. Resources - such as sacred forests and rivers - often have very high value while having no price. The second is that common property resources tend to degrade. Privatization is frequently prescribed for solving 'problems' caused by overusing resources under open access and common property. But it is based on the tradeability of private property, while commons are based on the inalienability of shared rights derived from use. The assumption that alienability is more conducive to conservation is derived from the false association of price with value.

It has been argued that landowners have little incentive to invest in long-term measures such as soil conservation if they do not have the right to sell or transfer their land, and thus cannot realize the value of any improvements. This is patently false, since the best examples of soil conservation - such as in the hill-terraces of the Himalaya - have been realized for precisely the opposite reasons. Communities who are not threatened by alienation of resources and their benefits have the long-term possibility and interest to conserve them.

Aggravation of poverty

The dominant paradigm of environmental economics fails to internalize the costs of resource degradation socially and ecologically. Social internalization would imply that those responsible for environmental degradation should bear the costs of it.

Turning commons into commodities is a necessary part of environmental economics in the market paradigm. But it does not stop environmental degradation because the economically powerful do not mind paying a higher price for a resource. Other people bear the costs both of the scarcity of a declining resource, to which the rich can continue to have access, and of related scarcities and pollution caused by overexploitation. These ecological costs are not considered in the reductionist model of market internalization.

A genuine internalization would have to include values beyond those of the market, values that put limits on overexploitation. Given the vast gulf between the rich and poor, market prices, no matter how high they rise, will not introduce limits to exploitation. They will therefore not restrict resource exploitation within ecological limits, but will instead allow resource degradation to continue while aggravating poverty and injustice.

Economic growth takes place through the overexploitation of natural resources, creating a scarcity of them in both nature's economy and the survival economy. Nature shrinks as capital. The growth of the market cannot solve the very crisis it creates. Furthermore, while natural resources can be converted into cash, cash cannot be converted into nature's ecological processes. Those who offer market solutions to the ecological crisis limit themselves to the market, and look for substitutes to the commercial function of natural resources as commodities and raw material. However, in nature's economy, the currency is not money, it is life.

This neglect of the role of natural resources in ecological processes and in people's sustenance economy - and the diversion and destruction of these resources for commodity production and capital accumulation - are the main reasons for both the ecological crisis and the crisis of survival in the developing world. The solution seems to lie in giving local communities control over local resources so that they have the right and responsibility to rebuild nature's economy and, through it, their sustenance. Only this will ensure greater distributive justice, participation and sustainability.

Dr. Vandana Shiva is Director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy, New Delhi.

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