Free is really, you know, the gift of Silicon Valley to the world. It’s an economic force, it’s a technical force… It is abundance, as opposed to scarcity.—Chris Anderson (Editor, Wired Magazine)
Unlike other animal species, which do not invest much energy in that which is rare, human beings prize what’s rare, commonly investing a good deal of energy into fighting over and capturing it, rather than moving toward and sharing in abundance. In fact, humans seem to deprecate abundance; they reward a rare skill with an absurd amount of money, even if that skill is not essential to the operations of society. Professional sports salaries, especially for men, are a typical example of this phenomenon.
What is free is often considered worthless. Some employers, for example, put in their classified ads a demand for a certain amount of experience in PAID work, as if volunteer work did not count. (Tell that to volunteer firefighters, or someone whose home was saved by them.) There are reasons that employers are not interested in hiring volunteers. Volunteers may be perceived as not showing adequate pride in their work product. (Again, tell that to a doctor or nurse who works at a free clinic.) Perhaps a volunteer was not adequately trained. Both low-paid and non-paid workers are often inadequately trained. (I know that firsthand from being a part-time, minimum-wage radio announcer in Indiana in the late ’70s. The station’s general manager deemed us as not needing training in a manual override system that I needed to use on my very next shift after the meeting at which he said that.)
Training costs money and most employers prefer that such costs be externalized. Or perhaps some employers think that a volunteer, even an unpaid intern, does not have the “discipline” to show up regularly, on time as a paid worker is expected to. (Since when has the mere fact of pay guaranteed punctuality? Even highly paid professional athletes have been known to be late.) I suspect that employers don’t value volunteers, at least in part because a volunteer who does not need the money is seen as not as malleable as someone who needs that paycheck. A volunteer can tell the employer to go to hell if he or she is being poorly treated. Volunteers do not have to play the employer’s control game, which is almost always a losing proposition for the worker anyway.
But consider the value that Mother Nature freely gives. Sunlight is free. Air and rain are free. We all need these things to survive. Are they worthless because Mother Nature doesn’t charge? There are some people that feel that in order to preserve standing forests we must put a dollar value on them, and that dollar value must be greater than what the standing forests, which are the lungs of the planet, can yield as product: timber, clear-cut for building a new subdivision, or for genetically modified trees that are on monocrop plantations replacing the natural virgin forest. In this sense, I use the word “virgin” as meaning “belonging to no man” rather than “untouched”.
People can certainly use a forest, even harvesting some of its bounty for products that are later sold. But it is ultimately wrong to think that because a certain person or corporation “owns” a forest that it is somehow more valuable by reason of that privatization. It is worth a certain amount of currency to the “owner” but it is taken out of the realm of use and enjoyment to “non-owners”. This is how money and private ownership makes the forests, and any other natural resource, scarce when they should be available in plenitude to whomever needs them. That scarcity seems to be one thing that is more abundant every day, that, and more people needing more things.
Because what is plentiful and even free is deemed cheap, or even worthless, in a monetary system, value is created in the system only by making resources scarce. Consider that war destroys lives and resources. How can we ever have generalized abundance (and peace) in a monetized society?
Food is a major area in which we do not appreciate abundance. Although climate change is having an impact on our ability to produce food, the world as a whole still produces more food than the global population needs. Yet there are still billions of people who go hungry. Why? The need for money to buy food is part of the problem, as is misdistribution, again, mostly because of money and politics, e.g. North Korean food aid is dwindling. Donors, including the US government, object to the militarism of the North Korean government, so in April of this year, 500,000 rural North Korean children lost aid, as the NGO that helped feed them ran into a funding crunch.
In May, 2011, the UN issued a report saying that 1.3 billion tons of food was lost or wasted each year. Loss occurs on the production side; Waste is a consumer issue.
‘Disposing is cheaper than using or reusing’ attitude in industrialized countries leads to food waste….(Emphasis added)
Abundance and consumer attitudes lead to high food waste in industrialized countries. Perhaps one of the most important reasons for food waste at the consumption level in rich countries is that people simply can afford to waste food. The amount of available food per person in retail stores and restaurants has
increased during the last decades in both the USA and the EU. A lot of restaurants serve buffets at fixed prices, which encourages people to fill their plates with more food than they can actually eat. Retail stores offer large packages and “getting one for free” bargains. Likewise, food manufactures produce oversized ready to eat meals (Stuart, 2009).
(Grocery stores, like Whole Foods, where my husband and I used to shop, can also afford to waste food by charging ridiculously high prices.)
In September, 2013, The UN updated the report, saying that a third of the world’s food was wasted each year. This wasted food leaves a carbon footprint larger than all but China and the US.
I see the problem of rich countries wasting food as having two components. First of all, the industry called Big Food has a monetary interest in getting us to buy more food so that it can make more profit. (This contributes to the growing obesity epidemic, but the costs connected with that epidemic are externalized by Big Food. BF doesn’t care, someone else (Big Pharma or the government) can deal with it so long as they don’t regulate or tax Big Food).
The second problem is one of consumer values: People simply can afford to waste food. Before anyone starts saying that the price of food should be increased to discourage waste, think again about the people who, at current prices, cannot afford nutritious food in adequate quantities. As with attempts to enforce conservation of water or energy through higher utility prices, higher food prices would be the irrational rationer; those with the money and the will to waste food will still do so, while those without enough money will go hungry. Consumers must come to the realization that prosperity lies in the attitude of “waste not, want not”, and in an abundance of real things, not money. How can we be prosperous under a system that says the cornucopia only gains value as it is emptied?
Appreciation of and respect for abundance includes knowing that there comes a point when we must say “enough is enough.” The current money-jobs systems, especially in their corporate capitalist expressions, particularly the advertising industry, propagandize us to think that more is better. Certainly, there are billions of people in the world who need more things, but most of them don’t live in the industrialized nations. This “more is better” and “new is better” philosophy, a part of “contributing to the arrow of consumption” that Annie Leonard’s Story of Stuff movie speaks of, is designed to keep markets thriving. People have jobs to make money to buy things, so that other people have jobs to make money to buy things, so that other people have jobs to make money to buy things, ad infinitum. The buying of things becomes an activity in and of itself, which is less and less enjoyable as we get more and more in debt to pay for more and newer things, and we forget whatever joy or usefulness we had in older things that are still good.
From clearing out our clutter, to the ecological considerations of using so many resources to make and transport so much stuff, to the economic question of marginal utility: how much more does the next new thing add to the quality of our lives? And because there are other generations to follow. Maybe we have better things to do than buy more stuff, like making sure that those who do need more can get it. There are lives in the balance, now and in future generations.
Kéllia Ramares-Watson is an independent journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, who asks, “Why must we pay to live on the planet we’re born on?” This is the second in her intermittent “Core Values” series. The first one is here. She is active on an international email discussion list in support of demonetization. Kéllia can be reached at theendofmoney[at]gmail.com.