“Who so hath his mind on taking, hath it no more on what he hath taken (Michel de Montaigne, 1575(1)).”
Nature provides her services to all free of charge. All the organisms of the Earth, save one, acquire the necessities of life without money or currency, and for much of history, people also lived lives free from the advent of monetary exchange. Long after our ancestors gave up hunting and gathering and settled into agrarian villages, most of the earth’s resources and real estate continued to be communally owned and managed. In Europe, peasants grew crops and grazed their livestock on common lands that were utilized for the benefit of all. Native Americans, much to their eventual detriment, had no concept of land or resource private ownership. And even today, a few indigenous cultures still lead meaningful lives without cash in the modern age.
In the absence of currency, the various tribes of Earth fared reasonably well. For tens of thousands of years, most of humanity managed to live sustainably within the bounds of nature’s economy.
With the rise of capitalism in the past few centuries, human societies embraced the notion of private property. As we exchanged our place as natural consumers for a place in the market as consumers, we exchanged nature’s economy for an artificial, myopic economy that only measures value in terms of dollars and cents. One of many problems with this strategy is that the price of a good is also equated with its value; however, where nature is concerned, the worth of a living thing is almost never reflected in its market price.
For example, a tree in the forest in man’s capitalist economy is a commodity worth its value in lumber. As the ecological values the tree provides are not equated in the market, and are rather written off as “externalities,” much of the tree’s greater values are not recognized. A tree is a source of oxygen, freshly minted and renewed every single day. The tree may be medicine, a home for birds and other critters and an object of beauty to the senses, filling the air with fragrance, rustling in the wind and casting speckled light on the forest floor. The tree’s root system creates a web that holds topsoil in place preventing erosion. The tree in the forest also contains the capacity to reproduce itself ad infinitum, thereby sustaining the forest indefinitely. By reducing the tree to lumber, we also reduce the tree to its commodity price and not only rob the earth of much of the tree’s value but also rob ourselves of an enhanced perspective on existence that is beyond the scope of currency. A tree is so much more than the price of its lumber.
As our western capitalist culture globalizes, the Earth herself becomes a commodity. Equated in dollars and cents, Earth’s real worth is vastly undervalued. Globalization misses the point of the richness of creation and exchanges it for digits on a ledger.
With the fall of the communist Soviet Union, globalized capitalism began an unfettered parade across the globe, leaving a wake of environmental and human casualties. The few remaining indigenous peoples of the Earth who lead currency-free lives are rapidly becoming another victim of predatory capitalism cloaked in the name of “progress.”
The World Trade Organization and the United Nations measure human welfare based on average annual income. Persons earning less than $1/day are said to be living in abject poverty. Many people who fall into this category certainly are living in intolerable conditions. Urban growth is exploding as rural people make their way to cities in search of the better life promised by globalization. Many former rural peoples are forced off their land as heavily subsidized imported crops overrun markets and make it impossible for small local farmers to continue their generations-old way of life. Globalization has not brought improvements in livelihood to the vast majority of the world’s people. Urban immigrants are likely to end up in a slum, living in a hastily constructed shanty without access to electricity, clean water or sanitary facilities. On a global scale, one in three urban residents, over one billion people, lives in the squalor of an urban slum (2). We should all be concerned about improving the lives of these poor people who have fallen through the cracks of capitalism's false promises.
The U.N. and WTO also recognize as impoverished many indigenous people who have little if any monetary income to speak of. In Eastern India’s Orissa state, the people of the Dongria Kondh tribe have lived in the Niyamgiri mountains for thousands of years. To the Dongria Kondh people, the mountain Niyam Raja is god. The mountain has sustained them throughout their long history. The tribe collects juice from indigenous palm trees, which provides a refreshing and slightly alcoholic beverage. Small subsistence farms are also tended that provide millet and various legumes. The forest provides a bounty of native fruit and supports a rich diversity of medicinal plants, and forest streams, unadulterated by any industry, run clear and clean. While the Dongria Kondh are considered by the capitalist world to be impoverished, they do not see themselves as such. While they have little of monetary value, they love their land, their god Niyam Raja, and their way of life.
Yet, in the name of progress, the Indian government and Vedanta Resources PLC, an international corporation, have entered into a mining agreement that allows Vedanta to engage in the mountaintop removal of the Niyamgiri to strip mine the approximate 70 million tons of aluminum ore (bauxite) that is estimated to be contained within the sacred mountains.
Vedanta has already commenced mining in adjacent tribal lands and has been unanimously condemned by international civil rights organizations like Amnesty International for displacing indigenous peoples and poisoning rivers, streams and water supplies with toxic byproducts of mining and refining. Vedanta defends their position by stating their activities will “deliver significant economic stimulus to the local community, especially historically undeveloped areas of Orissa.” The corporation further extrapolates that it has “rehabilitated” the tribal members displaced by the mining operations by offering them jobs at the refinery (3). The problem is that the Dongria Kondh do not want to be “rehabilitated.” They have vowed to lay down their lives to save their way of life and have blocked mining roads into their lands as women, men and children lay down in front of “civilized” man’s machines of destruction.
The plight of the Dongria Kondh people has been called the real Avatar, as the peaceful, earth-worshipping, sustainable existence the tribe has embraced for millennia exemplifies the values portrayed by the fictitious protagonists in the film. Vedanta, the U.N., the WTO and the culture of globalized free trade would have us believe that by stripping the Dongria Kondh of their culture, their god and their beloved livelihoods, we are raising them out of poverty by providing jobs that pay money. In reality, it is globalization that is creating poverty, annihilating the world’s diversity in natural and human cultures, exchanging the priceless for aluminum soda cans and calling it progress.
1- Montaine, Essays at http://www.scribd.com/doc/896601/The-Essays-of-Montaigne-V3-by-Michel-de-Montaigne
2- The United Nations Millennium Project at http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/pdf/mdg2007.pdf/
3- The Wall Street Journal, February 9th, 2010 at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704820904575054500270794986.html?mod=googlenews_wsj