In his latest book, The Value of Nothing, Raj Patel explores the failures of so-called free market capitalism, and highlights some of the ways people are changing the democratic system. One of the most exciting social movements for Patel is the food movement, where thousands of people are raising the bar for social justice by improving the health and environmental impacts of the food we produce, and the labor practices employed in how we bring food to the table, with the goal of providing a stable food supply for all people.
The title of his book comes from a quote by Oscar Wilde, "Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing." I spoke to Patel this week to better understand where our market system went wrong, and how we can begin to reclaim the idea of value from the marketplace.
Paula Crossfield: You book centers around the idea that price is not a proper indicator of value. How are the costs left out of the price getting paid?
Raj Patel: Well, we pay $4 for a hamburger at our local burger joint, but Indian researchers looked at the environmental costs of producing a hamburger and came up with the figure that that burger should cost $200. That is just the environmental costs. But we [also] pay in terms of lost biodiversity, species that are lost through deforestation, [and] through increased climate change. There was a study a couple of years ago that did the math with the way that we over-consume today, and if you add up the excess debt, from the depletion of the ozone layer, to the migrations and mitigation costs of climate change, the costs in terms of emptying the seas, [and] increased desertification, then people in developing countries pay way more than we do. We owe them around 5 trillion dollars, with a very conservative calculation. [In addition] one in five health care dollars in the United States is spent on taking care of someone who has diabetes. Those are the costs that we pay not at the check out, but through our health insurance system. And thats why in the book I say that cheap food is cheat food. The way that food is made cheap in the United States involves all sorts of cut corners from the environmental costs we don't pay to the labor costs we don't pay... But we all end up paying for it in the end, just not the corporations.
PC: Stephen Colbert asked you [when you were on his show, the Colbert Report, last week] if we should just be paying $200 for a hamburger, but you argue for a different approach.
RP: That seems like where the argument would be heading, if the issue was that we should just pay the full costs of things, and let the market guide our consumption. Eventually we'd just end up paying a tax, and the increased costs would end up being a disproportionate tax on poor people. If we're interested in a comprehensive public health care scheme, with things like the soda tax, then we need to look at the whole system. And the whole system involves people's ability to afford food in the first place. When you have 1 in 3 kids born in 2000 who will develop diabetes, and 1 in 2 kids of color [of the same age] who will develop diabetes, its worth asking that deeper question. And when you get into that deeper question, you get immediately into the issue of poverty. So what I'm arguing for is certainly a move towards us paying the full costs of the goods that we produce, but we need to tackle poverty and we need to tackle the appalling state of low wages in the United States, but more than that, what I am arguing for is a more democratic way in which we live with the consequences of our economic actions.
PC: Throughout the book you refer to an economist, Karl Polanyi. Could you explain his philosophy?
RP: Karl Polanyi [had the idea that] there is no such thing as a market that is entirely self-regulating, because markets are instruments that people have made. But what Polanyi was also saying was that when this myth of the free market goes too far, and those markets collapse, society comes back in what is called a "double movement" in order to correct the worst excesses of the free market. He was writing about developments in 19th century Britain, but he was writing in the middle of the second world war when he'd seen full well how Germany, for example, had reacted to the market going crazy in the 1920s, when the reign of the free market was responded to by the rise of the far right in the 1930s and the collapse of markets, and the depression fomented a great deal of right wing organizing as well as left wing organizing. So one of the reasons I use Karl Polanyi is because he offers a way of thinking about how we can reclaim the balance between market and society, but also a warning for what happens if we allow other people to reclaim that balance for us.
PC: You spend a lot of time in the book talking about the 'commons.' Could you explain that concept?
RP: Its not straight forward, because the way that most of us come to the idea of the commons is through the sort of misguided idea that it is stuff that isn't really owned by anyone and therefore gets destroyed because we are all selfish -- the so-called "tragedy of the commons." But the commons isn't like that, the commons have always been a way that the community can value and manage resources together in a way that doesn't rely on markets, but does rely on a more engaged kind of community democracy. The commons [also] offers a great way of internalizing externalities. If you live with the consequences of your actions, then your learn from your actions in the future and modify them to make your actions sustainable. At the moment our food system is entirely unsustainable, and we do need to be living within our means. And I think the food movement is kind of heading that way much faster than any other sector of the economy.
PC: How do you think we can reclaim the commons?
RP: Its important to remember that the commons is not just stuff, but that it about the ways of governing that stuff. In the book I talk about how it's important for us to re-develop that side of ourselves, a side of us that is available to engage in community politics and engage in civic politics. Now that may sound fairly soft, but actually there are some tremendous examples of how we can together value things without surrendering them to a market. That involves things like participatory budgeting, where everyone in a city gets together and discusses how it is that city resources will be spent. This involves us abandoning the side of us that is a consumer...it is important for us to think for a minute about what kind of citizens we want to be, particularly in this economic downturn, when we are facing some pretty dark economic times. If we are serious about reclaiming the commons, I think getting involved in the way our food, for example, can be governed locally, things like food policy councils, [which] offer a way for people to start building the kinds of demographic community organization that we need in order to actually think about controlling resources, and sharing those resources democratically.
PC: Do you think the commons should be extended to include farmland? You've spoken in the past about land reform, what do you think that might look like?
RP: I certainly think that the scale of farms in the United States right now is a function both of history, but also of cheap oil. And as oil becomes increasingly less cheap, and as water becomes increasingly harder to find, and as the infrastructure that supports industrial agriculture becomes increasingly unsustainable, the full costs of that come home to roost. [As] we head towards 2050, and there are going to be 9 billion of us and there aren't the fossil fuel resources and the water resources we take for granted, we know the kinds of policies we're going to need to survive that: we'll need a lot more peri-urban farming and urban farming. We need to figure out the ways and strategies now to put the infrastructure in to make sure that we are able to farm and survive in the future. Does that mean that [we'll see] land democratically and through land reform that compensates [the owner] being brought into the public domain? I think so. I'd much rather that than a few people be able to hold onto tons of land while the rest of us starve.
PC: You've been critical about cap and trade as a solution to climate change. Why is price a poor form of regulation?
RP: In Europe, cap and trade systems have been up for awhile, and they've demonstrably been bad. I have a quote in the book from someone who is in the emissions trading business making a lot of money out of it, saying basically that the polluters have done well, coal and nuclear have done very, very well, and the people who have done best are bankers. And we shouldn't be surprised that there are a lot of chops being licked on Wall Street at the prospect of a several trillion dollar market in derivatives that share in many ways the same kind of DNA of the derivatives that got us into the last financial crisis. There are ways in which we can effectively reduce our carbon emissions, and that's by capping them. Historically, the way we've reduced pollutants is by legislating them out of business. So we absolutely need caps, its just the trade which is specious, as there are plenty of opportunities for people to cheat, plenty of opportunities for people to commit fraud...Internationally there is a great deal of fraud in terms of the kinds of projects that are qualified to sell carbon emissions. I write in the book about one of the places that was suspected of being the home of the swine flu outbreak, a huge pig [confined animal feeding operation] in Veracruz, [Mexico] and one of the ways it makes a great deal of money is by selling off-set credits, because of the way that it uses pig shit. Its not as if we don't have other approaches, other ways of making markets work. We have plenty of things to do, but we need first to invest in alternative energy, we need massive transfers to developing countries, we need to cap the amount of carbon we produce here, and we can do all of that without giving large amounts of money to banks.
PC: A solution that is being proposed to climate change by Jeffrey Sachs, Stewart Brand and others is genetically modified climate change-ready plants. Some even argue that it is possible to combine the best of organic practices with GMOs. I was wondering how you respond to that.
RP: That's criminally stupid. The reason that it is stupid is that no one who is a climatologist seriously believes that climate change is any one thing. Climate change is precisely change, it means variability in climate patterns and consequent variability in the kinds of pests, the time at which pests come, the timing of rainfall and what have you. There isn't a gene that deals with that and that is because no who's worth a damn thinks that there is one gene for one trait. This is [an idea] that has become massively outdated, so people who think that there's such a thing as a climate change gene are smoking dope. We've seen the best kind of solutions to climate change aren't about adding a single gene or stacking a bunch of genes into a crop and proceeding with the idea that a monoculture is a good thing. The way to fight climate change is to have a portfolio of crops that deal with the various increased risks.
PC: I was at the Society for Ethical Culture last week and it was really a great discussion, and at one point [the host] Amy Goodman made a comment about you bringing everything back to food. You also said that you thought that the movement for food sovereignty could be a way to reclaim the market. Could you talk a bit about why you think that is?
RP: Yeah, I do always bring it back to food. I was troubled by that because I didn't have an easy answer. And yet for me food is about life. Food brings together everything that everyone should care about. It is about giving life, it is about what we need to survive on this planet, it is about our interaction with the planet, and about the way that we replenish or don't replenish the earth that we live on. There is something both primal and industrial and very high-capitalist about food. And it is the area where, if we are interested in life, if we're interested in the ways that we can live on this planet sustainably, then we really do need to start with questions about food. [The food movement] is to me the most vibrant area of social change certainly in the United States but also elsewhere. In the 90s, the food movement in the United States was a laughing stock and now its really cutting edge, and people look to the United States for information on how things should change. I think that's tremendous. I think that what food sovereignty offers is both a democratic way for us to take very seriously issues around rights, particularly around gender, but also ways in which we can think about the environment, about distribution, and poverty in ways that are sustainable. It brings it all together in ways that, if we're concerned with social justice, whether its education, the way our institutions behave, ecology, poverty, environment, whatever it is, you'll find it in food, and you'll find something very exciting in the organizing around food that gives me hope in ways that very few things do these days.
Follow Paula Crossfield on Twitter: www.twitter.com/civileater