Earth For Sale

What I thought about yesterday morning, as I opened up the new package of dental floss with a special weave so it won’t break, is how so much of our human ingenuity and our diminishing energy supplies goes towards making new stuff that will appeal to the discriminating consumer.

It was an echo of an item that had flickered across my Facebook feed on Tuesday which I “liked” but, apart from the summary, did not actually read or view, overwhelmed as I regularly am by the many, many other things that flicker across the screen.

The article, which turned out not to be a print piece but actually a video of environmental writer George Monbiot speaking brilliantly about (to put it in a very constraining nutshell) how deeply capitalism has overtaken our relationship with nature.

This is something that, years ago, I was thinking about a lot.

For awhile, I set myself up in a studio outside the village of Millbrook, Ontario and worked on a manifesto-of-sorts called LifeTM.

Back then, in the late 90s, I was thinking about how we seemed to be viewing things that could not be assigned a financial value, such as the sacred and spiritual, through a lens of consumption. I remember watching how advertising eventually caught on to the New Age movement and started aligning products with images of meditating women.

This is even truer today, in deep and scary ways. The products Mobiot focuses on, in his talk, are natural and also partially internal, in the sense that our relationship with the natural world, whether we realize it or not, is so linked to our happiness as human animals. He speaks of the ancient forests and coastlines and other features that cannot, not really, be monetized. Just like meditation.

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He talks about the terminology used by both governments and environmental groups to assign value to nature in a way that the majority of people (people who couldn’t give two figs about the ancient tree grove that gets in the way of a service station – but I’ll get to that in a minute) can understand.

“Natural capital” and “ecosystems markets,” for example.

This bizarre way of looking at the world somehow enables the pegging of a monetary value on aspects of the environment we would once never have considered valuing in this way. For example, a government report in Britain estimated the aesthetic value of the country’s freshwater ecosystems at 17 million pounds.

Aesthetic. As in, what it looks like.

I mean, doesn’t that seem insane?

I know, I know. They’re talking about how much people will pay to appreciate the water. How much they’ll spend on a hotel or a boat ride or, I don’t know, a picnic on the beach with food bought from the local grocer. At least that’s what I think. At least that makes a bit of sense.

But the problem, of course, with assigning a dollar value to, um, the world, is that then people want to buy it.

For example, an ancient grove of trees that somebody wants to cut down to make way for a service station. This may actually be allowed under government provisions which would enable this business man to simply spend the estimated value of said tree grove on planting new seedlings.

Never mind history, enchantment, a sense of eternity, the contemplation of our mortality that one might get from entering a grove of centuries-old trees. In this equation, these things don’t matter.

They simply don’t compute.

What matters is the dental floss and all the other things we need and want in order to – as I heard an Enridge guy say on CBC today – “maintain our lifestyle.”

And of course this directly relates to Enbridge  and their Northern Gateway Pipeline which, unless your heart is too broken to actually listen to the news anymore, you’ll know was approved this week by the Harper government.

Viewed through the lunatic, consumptive lens Monbiot is talking about, the value of selling natural gas and crude oil to China is much, much, much higher than any estimated value – aesthetic, spiritual, or physical – of the Northern B.C coastline’s “natural capital”.

In this metric, the fact that the Haisla, the Gitga’at and the Gitxaala First Nations (not to mention nearly 50 other aboriginal communities along the 1,177 kilometre route) have lived in the coastal area for thousands of years is meaningless. “Spiritual homeland” has no economic value.

Nor is there any competition from the pods of whales who have returned, who sing their songs in the bay, who would be pushed out by the drastic increase in freighter traffic.

Or the salmon or the otters or the river sure to be decimated by a potential inevitable spill.

What worries me the most, what I started thinking about back in my work on that manifesto, is how the ideals of consumption and consumerism have integrated into our values, our world view.

And now I realize how deeply this has actually happened: pretty much to the point of a kind of madness.

How else could a logical human being actually believe that the natural environment is important only in how it relates to our use of it?

As I’ve been working on this post, Edward Champion published a great critical piece about a new app that Amazon released yesterday for their Fire phone.

Called Firefly (and never mind how that boils my Joss Whedon fangirl blood), the app will basically allow the phone’s user to point the thing at whatever they like in the physical world in order to buy that bit of bling (or, obviously, a facsimile) through Amazon and have it instantly delivered by drone or mail.

So it seems we could become creatures of “want” and “mine” and “give me” in all our interactions with the built and grown and natural world rather than contemplative observers, interacting in behaviours ruled by higher values and considerations.

I can’t wait.

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7 Responses to Earth For Sale

  1. Edward Champion June 21, 2014 at 9:21 am #

    Thanks for mentioning my piece. It isn’t just that capitalism is overtaking nature, although that is very much something that we should be concerned about. Behavioral modification, which has been an ideal perpetuated by our surveillance state (and very much the NSA’s goal if you examine the effect of the Snowden documents), is increasingly aligning itself with consumerist impulses. This has typically been used to curbed dissidents, or to prevent people from being critical or outspoken. But let us ponder what it will do with the way in which we purchase goods. It isn’t enough for our state to pore through our metadata and construct a profile of us based on the specific people we called, the times, and the duration. Bezos now wants to use this data to squeeze the last of our dollars. In CUBED, Nikil Saval points out how surveillance ideas (and this goes back to Foucault’s Panopticon idea) are deeply embedded in our office architecture. (I discussed some of this with Saval when he appeared on The Bat Segundo Show.) But the previous social contract involved going to work and knowing that, when we punched in, we rented our privacy out from nine to five. That is no longer enough for either Bezos or the NSA. They want to know everything. It will be interesting to see if Bezos attempts some variation of the crass “If you don’t have anything to hide, there’s nothing to worry about” line. But with the government, there’s a soupcon more accountability than Amazon, which is not accountable to anyone and has historically dodged all efforts at clarification — whether as a journalist or a customer.

    • Lauren
      Lauren June 25, 2014 at 2:20 pm #

      Thanks for commenting and expanding on this, Edward. The times we live in feel more and more like a Philip K. Dick novel…

  2. Naomi June 20, 2014 at 9:20 am #

    I love this, Lauren. I don’t even have anything to add, because you’ve already said it. I just wanted you to know that I appreciate what you’ve written, and I couldn’t agree more.

    • Lauren
      Lauren June 20, 2014 at 11:08 am #

      Thanks, Naomi! Always great to get feedback 🙂

  3. Miranda June 20, 2014 at 12:29 am #

    I love, love, love reading your thoughts Lauren. I always find your perspectives insightful, informative and unique. The topic of this article is something I think about quite regularly — it is shocking how easily we are able to compartmentalize morality for the sake of lifestyle.

    I will add this thought to the complex issue. In very poor, corrupt countries valuing the aesthetic or worth of the natural environment can be the only way to save it. In Cambodia, illegal logging and land grabbing have the country losing its jungle at an ASTONISHING rate. Getting locals and the government to believe that the forest is more valuable intact as a tourism draw is vital to saving what little is left. Same goes for much of the region (Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar). Similar approaches have been successful in protecting marine ecosystems off the coast of Africa with diving tourism. Is it an ideal solution, obviously not. Is it an approach that works in the real world, sorta.

    In this world, your decision to relocate to rural Saskatchewan is something that I admire and respect. You and your family are a drop in the bucket for good.

    • Lauren
      Lauren June 20, 2014 at 11:08 am #

      Thanks for the response, Miranda. If you haven’t already, you should watch George Monbiot’s speech. Grab a beer and settle in (it’s 1.5 hours long) – I washed the dishes during part of it, thinking often of how hard it is to focus on one thing nowadays (the subject of a forthcoming post…). His argument isn’t with the effort to broaden the appeal of nature, but the economic language (and values) being used… But he’s just so darn brilliant, it’s hard to sum it all up. Watch it 🙂

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