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What's the Value of Anything?

Reviewed by: Poornima Apte Email Reviewed by: Poornima Apte
July 2010
What's the Value of Anything? A few months ago, to mark World Water Day on March 22, the National Geographic Society released a telling chart through the pages of its magazine. The chart showed the true consumption of water for the manufacture of a variety of consumer products. For example, the true water consumption to make a pair of jeans was astonishing: 2,900 gallons.

“The dazzle of free markets has blinded us to other ways of seeing the world,” Patel writes. “As Oscar Wilde wrote over a century ago: ‘Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.’”

Such “externalities” occur everywhere but the example quoted most often is with the case of food. For example, among the many reasons organic food is more expensive is that sustainable agriculture is not the norm. Industrial agriculture is allowed to get away with a heavy toll on the environment—thereby making it appear less expensive at the supermarket checkout. “Both money and its big brother, gross domestic product (GDP), are poor measures of well-being and happiness. Other indicators of social health and happiness not only exist, but are far more revealing,” Patel writes.

He argues that the popular theory—that the markets are self-correcting—assumes that the prices of goods factor in the true social costs. The truth is that they don’t. The market system that caused the economy to collapse so spectacularly is in desperate need of replacement, Patel argues.

The Value of Nothing even revisits the basics of economics. With the help of real-world examples, Patel shows us how there’s no such thing as a free lunch. “Free” samples of baby milk distributed in the third world, for example, entice nursing mothers to try it out. It creates a cycle whereby the mothers stop lactating and are now forced to buy baby milk from multinational corporations.

The second half of the book looks at alternative forms of government. Patel draws on real-world examples from all over the world. La Via Campesina, an international peasant movement he visited in his previous book, Stuffed and Starved, also finds prime real estate here. Patel shows that there are everyday examples, even in the United States, of governance that gives everyone a seat at the table—where profits are not those solely defined by corporations. Credit unions, for instance, are doing well for their owners—and the owners are all the people who save with the union. “Interest rates are higher for savers and lower for borrowers; the credit union is more responsive to community demands, and appears to have been less exposed to the travails of the financial crisis,” Patel writes.

One of the problems with The Value of Nothing (and other similar efforts) is that it might not reach the audience who really should be reading it. In other words, people already amenable to the underlying message might the only ones to pick it up—a case of preaching to the choir.

Another limitation of this book is that the solutions to the problem might suffer from a lack of scalability. The case studies of alternative methods of governance might work at a smaller, micro level but it is hard to see an entire planet committed to reinventing itself this way. The same problem underlies Patel’s exhortation to readers to take a closer look at the tenets of Buddhism—a philosophy (as much as it is a religion) that argues that followers should try and want less. Again, while one can imagine quite a few people following such a path, it is hard to translate that to a macro scale and envision the whole world moving away from rabid consumerism.

That having been said, there are rays of hope. The deep recession the United States is just coming out from has had Americans saving more than they used to. There is also an increasing emphasis on experiences—dining and vacations together—away from a mindless accumulation of material goods. Shortly before he was elected president, then Senator Barack Obama mentioned that most citizens go with the status quo when times are good. But when times are bad—really bad—they sit up and want to try new things; they are more amenable to change. It can’t be denied that now is one of those times. One hopes that society is ready for the kind of systemic market change that Patel espouses. The Value of Nothing is a sound effort in that direction.

[Poornima Apte is an award-winning journalist who reviews
contemporary fiction and nonfiction in her spare time.]

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