For the New Year - Value

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, December 27, 1996


Value is a complex word.

The first several definitions of "value" as a noun, deal exclusively with monetary worth, and exchange rates in goods or services. Not until the third meaning is relative worth or importance mentioned in our dictionary. In the plural, the word "values" connotes beliefs or standards and sheds its monetary connection. Often this use relates to a loss of values, or the need to teach values.

As a verb, the first definition, to appraise, deals with assigning a monetary value. The second meaning is to prize, esteem, or maybe, hold dear, as in a valued friendship.

A century ago, Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as "a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." This neatly separates monetary worth from a more human evaluation, and suggests that a hundred years ago, there was less economic focus on the word "value."

We value our freedom, our children, mates, and friends, as well as our health. Yet, it is impossible for an honest person to put a price on these things. Our valuing of freedom and health is much like our appreciation of clean air, quiet, and peace. What we really value is something that's not there: the absence of tyranny, disease, pollution or war. Our world, however, is increasingly dominated by an economic paradigm which requires that a thing has a price before it can be considered valuable. It's hard to put a price on an absence. The song says, "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." Often the value of health or friends is transparent until we've experienced illness or loneliness.

An odd thing happens when we compare human value with economic value. Those things which humans value highly (and economics cannot value at all) have a more stable and universal worth than the things to which economics can assign a price. I think we can safely say that the value of a beloved and loving partner is high for human beings all over the Earth, and has been for millennia. Is the value you place on your health, family, or friends significantly different in quality or quantity from that of a first century Chinese, an ancient Greek, or an Amazonian Indian? I suspect not.

And yet, this continuity through time and space of human values is contrasted with the wild fluctuations we see these days in economic values. Precipitous rises in stock prices, sharp drops in the price of merchandise after Christmas and enormous quantities of "free" everything, are a few examples.

Much of what economic value has been created by industries world-wide, has come with the attached burden of future expenses to deal with the consequent wastes. These wastes may be plastic, radioactive, toxic, or they can even be the images beamed electronically into the minds of our children.

Besides polluting the air, water, soil, our bodies and our minds, these wastes can also take the form of a loss: the loss of diversity, traditional culture, or the ozone layer. Because we didn't appreciate that these things had great value, our economic system is able to destroy them, while it attempts to accumulate value for itself. The numbers go up for all the big companies, while our resources are consumed and our communities are destroyed.

The economic concept of value is a predator, stalking human society, looking for unvalued resources, whose devaluation for nearly everyone can produce economic wealth for a few. As Ivan Illich puts it in his essay, "Beauty and the Junkyard," "...the expansion of economic relations into ever more aspects of everyday life does not produce values; rather, it concentrates privilege."

As we end this year and start another, we should contemplate what it is we really value. Be aware of politicians, economic giants and their representatives who use the current economic situation as an excuse to lay waste to more of the human landscape in their attempt to create economic value.

Bringing our spending patterns more in line with what we really value is one of our best strategies for creating a society which reflects true human values.

Happy New Year!

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

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