How Predatory Capitalism Made Priceless Things Worthless, and Worthless Things Priceless
I read a headline today that made me almost choke in disbelief, in the way you do when you hear something too embarrassing to cope with. The Amazon’s burning. What did the G7 — aka the world’s richest countries — do? They gave it…$20 million.
Laugh scornfully with me. Because that figure is so minuscule it’s comical. Here’s an illustration. The Waltons (of Walmart) make $1.5 million…an hour. That means that’s the total amount the G7 gave to save the Amazon is less…quite literally…than billionaires make…in one day. My friends, if that’s how pitiably, vanishingly little the rich world cares about the planet…we’re in for a catastrophic century. It’s embarrassing and insulting to offer a mere $20 million to save the Amazon — because it reveals us rich Westerners as either selfish, careless fools or deliberate sociopaths, take your pick.
But then I had another thought.
Do you know how much Amazon, the company, is “worth”? About a trillion dollars, give or take. But how much is saving the Amazon…the river…the ecosystem…the lungs of the planet…worth? Apparently, $20 million. So Amazon Inc is worth a trillion dollars. The actual Amazonian ecosystem — or saving it, at least — is worth…$20 million. Amazon Inc, in other words, is worth 50,000 Amazonian rivers, ecosystems, lungs of the earth.
What the? What on God’s green earth…how did we end up with a global economy like that, so totally upside-down, nonsensical, bizarre, gruesome? That’s true — at least according to the logic of global capitalism. Of the G7’s neoliberal paradigm. But the only people that would actually believe the logic above are a) American economists b) Wall Street analysts and c) G7 politicians and their retinues. To the rest of us…it just sounds like insanity. The rest of us might not actually believe Amazon, Inc is worth 50,000 Amazonian ecosystems…but we have to live as if we do, anyways.
So how did this bizarre set of circumstance come to be? Have you ever really thought about it?
(Now, you might dispute me — skip this part if you don’t want to get technical. “The Amazon’s worth more than that!” Is it? But there is a concept in basic economics known as marginal thinking. It means: how much extra you’re willing to pay for a thing, over and above another. Right about now, the Amazon is burning. It is in very real danger of having a “dieback”, which means a vicious cycle in which it simply dies, a point of no return. And yet at this precise moment, the marginal value of the Amazon to the capitalist world is…$20 million. That is, funnily enough, the precise number, of how much the Amazon’s survival is worth to the global capitalist economy, down to the last digit. There is no debating it. The Amazon surviving’s value to capitalism is…less than a billionaire makes…in 24 hours.
At most, we might say that the value of possibly the planet living as an ecosystem — how much the rich world is willing to pay for the Amazon not to burn — is $200 million, $2 billion, or $20 billion. The Amazon burning, meaning the planet tipping that much further towards irreversible climate catastrophe. The marginal value of all that to the global capitalist system is…$20 million.The least we can say is that the exact and precise marginal value of just the Amazon’s survival to the capitalist global economy is…$20 million.)
You and I — sane people, who haven’t yet been brainwashed by American economics and it’s bizarre, sociopathic, upside-down logic — know intuitively and viscerally that all that’s somehow badly, badly wrong with saying the actual Amazon is worth barely a fraction of the capitalist Amazon, Inc. But again — why?
Well, what does the (real) Amazon provide? It provides, obviously, air, water, and soil. It nourishes and enriches the whole globe in that sense. It provides biodiversity to a degree we still haven’t understood. It provides a home — an historic one — to all sorts of people, who’ve been there for thousands of years. It is a cultural treasure and a jewel of history, too. So how much is all that worth? The shocking and disturbing answer is: it’s not worth anything, at least to the global capitalist economy.
Let me give you a visceral example. Where do you think chemotherapy came from? You probably imagine it was cooked up in a lab somewhere. You would be wrong. Chemotherapy was discovered thanks to compounds called vinca alkaloids, which were first noted to be present in…a flower. Madagascan Periwinkle. Periwinkle had a long history in folk medicine, as a potent enemy of disease, particularly diabetes. So one day, scientists decided to explore just what in periwinkle seemed to be so potent. They didn’t discover a medicine for diabetes — they discovered something much more historic: chemotherapy.
That little flower changed the course of human history. Chemotherapy, in other words, comes from the soil. Sure, today, it’s mixed in a lab. But it’s discovery would not have happened without those tiny little periwinkles.
So let me ask you again: how much is biodiversity worth? Well, the answer is: how many more chemotherapies are out there? How much is even one discovery of chemotherapy worth? More than Amazon, Google, and Facebook put together, obviously, because it has had a radical, utterly transformative effect on human life. But we don’t know how many more chemotherapies are out there. We only know that every time we destroy an ecosystem, we’re losing the countless possibilities towards them.
Is your brain short-circuiting a little. Take a breath. Here’s the good news: it should be. I’ll explain why in a moment.
Now, these are hard questions — “what is a chemotherapy worth? What is an ecosystem that might provide many of them worth?: But the global capitalist economy never attempted to answer them. It never even attempted to say: our forests and ecosystems and oceans and rivers are worth this much. Or even between this much and this much. This many trillions. Why not?
Because if you follow the logic, you end up in a place that capitalism can’t go — and won’t let any of us go, either, and not being able to go to that place together is tearing the world apart. Think of this place as the one place capitalism can’t ever go, just like a vampire can never go in the sun.
If the Amazon is full of chemotherapies waiting to be discovered (among many other things, like providing the much of the world air and soil and water)…and we don’t know how much even one chemotherapy is worth, because it’s so valuable as a breakthrough in human history…then how much is an Amazon, the river, the ecosystem, not the corporation, really worth?
The correct answer, if you think all those true economics through, is this. It’s priceless. Because we don’t know how much it will yield in benefits to humanity…and because those benefits are so large that they could be uncountably high…because the “ecosystem services” like air and water and soil it already provides are literally too valuable to count…the obvious and logical answer…the only answer a sensible person can reach…is this: the Amazon is priceless.
And so is, for example, the Great Barrier Reef, the Arctic, the Himalayas, and so on.
But that’s the place capitalism can’t go. Capitalism can’t let you or I have that answer. It will not stand for a world where things are priceless. Why? Because it needs to buy things cheap — as cheap as possible — and sell them right back to us, as high as possible. It needs to chew through the Amazon and the Reef and the Arctic for the lowest possible amount of money, make stuff, and charge us the highest possible price. That way, its profits are maximized.
What do you think a system like that would do if it was in charge of the world? It would probably make all things it couldn’t value because they were priceless…worthless…so it could consume them rampantly…wouldn’t it? And that’s exactly what global capitalism did. It made the world’s rivers, forests, oceans, reefs, and glaciers…not priceless…but free. For it to consume and chew up and destroy and deplete and savage. And it made things that are worthless, priceless — like those diamonds you and I buy now, because they were cleverly marketed as things kings and queens wore, or having a shiny new car or phone every single year, or feeling good about yourself only through being superior in status or power or wealth to others. See how all that happened — how predatory capitalism twisted our human priorities upside down, by making worthless things priceless, and priceless things worthless?
Do you see the lesson here yet? Let me try to make it crystal clear.
We see the Amazon burning, and all of us — sensible, moral people — are genuinely and profoundly horrified. But the deeper lesson we must learn is this. Some things really are priceless, and so that’s exactly what they should be. They are literally so valuable that nobody on earth should be able to remotely afford to wreck and devastate them. They should exist outside capitalism entirely. But since American economics is one of the most foolish systems of thought ever invented, it says that what can’t be valued should be free, isn’t priceless… it’s the opposite: worthless. It should be free for capitalism to just abuse and savage. Yet what can’t be valued is in fact usually priceless, because it is worth so much that it is uncountably, inestimably high.
How much was the discovery of chemotherapy worth?
Those little periwinkles, it turned out, were literally priceless. And the reefs and rivers and oceans and glaciers are exactly such things: they are priceless. How many undiscovered periwinkles do they contain? They are not worthless. They shouldn’t be free. They should be…genuinely…priceless, as in priced so high, no capitalist entity can afford to prey on them. Much of our world should be literally priceless.
If we’d done the sensible thing generations ago, when a global economy was being made, we would have built one based on pricelessness — not worthlessness. (Worthlessness, incidentally is how capitalism keeps making you buy stuff: it needs to make you feel worthless to keep profiting at all.)
That means we would have created something like a Global Earth Guardian Agency, and said: “Hey! These things are off limits: the Amazon, the Great Reefs, the glaciers, the Himalayas, the Arctic. Why? Because they are priceless. They are not things that should ever, ever be part of a global capitalist economy. They sit outside it. You cannot afford them. They are to last forever, for generations, so our children and grandchildren, too, gaze in wonder at them. We are all connected through history that way, by what outlives us.” (And we would have paid all those indigenous and local people to protect and safeguard and tend and nourish them, too, setting up whole new economies for cities and regions along the way.)
But we never built that kind of system. Instead, we let predatory capitalism define the whole world for us, and take over the globe. It said that the things which should be priceless are worthless, like the planet, democracy, civilization, the rivers, reefs, and glaciers…and the things that should be worthless are priceless…like diamonds or selfies or ads or having perfect abs but being a sociopathic human being. And the result, today, is horrific. Genuinely nightmarish. Surreal.
The Amazon is burning. And even as it goes up in flames, saving it is only “worth”…$20 million to the capitalist economy the rich world built…even though losing it might tip the planet towards irreversible catastrophe…while Amazon inc, is “worth” $1 trillion, or 50,000 Amazon rivers surviving. Our grandchildren will shake their heads in disbelief, shock, and fury at that level of stupidity, greed, indifference, and sheer backwardness. (An astute reader might also note: that’s how capitalism, racism, supremacism, and colonialism are all linked, too.)
And we should all shake our heads in disbelief at American capitalism’s bizarre illogic, too, my friends. As it went global, it ripped all our futures apart. It is not worth believing in a system that says everything we truly hold dear is worthless, not priceless — because to it, everything has a low, low price, including democracy, the future, civilization, and the planet. If you don’t understand that right now — when the real Amazon’s only worth $20 million, but Amazon Inc is worth $1 trillion — maybe you never will.
Eudaimonia and Co
Eudaimonia & Co
A BBC video with some useful images and stats. As a rule, we distrust the BBC, but this video seems harmless enough, even if fails to point out the actual causes of this global catastrophe.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License
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