Values beyond price
says that concentration on monetary values is at the
root of the ecological crisis
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
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).'
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
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
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
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
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.