Thinking like trees?

An evening at a Malaysian park – Photo: Asia Samachar
By Gurnam Singh | OPINION |

One of the terrible failings of our current economic model based on commodity capitalism is the way it calculates the value of something. Simply speaking a good that is interchangeable with other goods can be classified as a commodity. In the capitalist world, there is very little on the planet that cannot be subject to the process of commoditisation, with agriculture and agricultural produce constituting a major component.

Over the past 200 years, with the exponential growth in the human population, and industrialisation, mostly related to energy and food production, we have seen terrible degradation of our natural environment almost to the point of destruction.

One of the problems with the present system is the way we think about ‘value’, an issue that was the central theme of this year’s BBC Reith Lectures given by the former Head of the Bank of England, Mark Carney. Carney argues that one of the central failures of the market economy is the elevation of ‘financial value’ over ‘human value’ and this has contributed to the climate crisis.

Since listening to his lectures, I have been doing a lot of thinking about how we might better value humanity and nature, i.e. value not exploiting the planet. This drew me to a picture that I have had in my office for many years of a giant sequoia tree. These are trees that can live for 3,000 years and can grow as tall as a 31-story building. The only reason some have survived is that, given the abundance of other smaller trees, they were literally too expensive to cut down for the commercial loggers; Thank god for that!

However, these trees are being logged and logging companies are able to extract considerable financial returns on investment, with each tree making between £600,000-£800,000. Of course, such ways of calculating value tend to be determined by a mixture of both short-term thinking, but also what the market is prepared to pay.

Now, what if we began to think in terms of the long term, and human values, how might our sense of value change? Would it ever then be ‘economically’ justifiable to cut down these wonders of nature? How do we calculate the value of not cutting down, not building a dam, not turning a forest into farmland, not building another road, not killing off wildlife, and so on? In short, how do we calculate the value of preserving rather the natural environment rather than subjecting it to ‘production’ and commoditisation?

One option might be to overthrow the capitalist system in a moment of revolutionary praxis (unity of thought and action) and replace it with socialism. Given the terrible destruction that this system has wreaked on the planet, I find this to be a rather attractive, if not altogether a realistic proposition. However, my idealism becomes tempered when I also contemplate the terrible destruction that past communist states have also wreaked on the planet and human life. Moreover, with the changes in the nature and organisation of work and labour, the kinds of collective class consciousness and class solidarity that existed in the 19th and 20th centuries simply do not exist.

What I think we need is a paradigm shift, which means, just because we have the technological power to manipulate the physical environment and reshape our planet, we should do so! It means we need to work much harder as reimagining how we calculate the value of something.

Karl Marx argued that within the capitalist system there are two ways in which value is calculated, namely ‘use-value’ (what practical use it has, such as a bottle of clean water, and ‘exchange value’, or how much you can get for the bootle of waste. The ‘use-value’ remains constant, but it is the exchange or market value that can change according to such things as supply and demand.

Some people, such as John Holloway, argue that the only solution is to break this link between ‘use and ‘exchange’ value, which means abolishing capital or money! Once this link is broken, then we can begin to see the true value of things, as opposed to the market manipulation of prices. I would like to argue that a more pragmatic solution might be to introduce a third way of establishing value, and that is a longer-term measure based on its impact on nature and ultimately humanity, rather than be blinded by shareholder value or the interests of the nation. Now that we seem to have a global consensus on the terrible effects of the destruction of our natural ecosystem, I think there is a way of achieving this.

So, how do we develop this new measure of value? Given the failures of economists, ‘experts’ and politicians, I think we need to find ways of building on the ancient wisdom that indigenous people possess, on the lived experience of peasant farmers and villagers and those who live closest to nature, who have a different conception of time. We also need to involve ethicists, artists, academics, climate scientists, documentary makers, young people etc. And the role of politicians should be to listen and then formulate policies based on this longer-term ecological thinking.

I think it is only by bringing a wide spectrum of citizens that we can develop a new conception of value, and if we succeed, I am sure we can regenerate the ecosystems and preserve and protect the planet for future generations. And perhaps a starting point is to develop schemes where people get financial rewards for protecting the environment rather than what happens at the moment.

In this regard, I came across a story in The Guardian which reports on a very successful scheme in Kerela, South India, where villages are encouraged to plant a tree, and after three years residents can mortgage each sapling for an interest-free loan that can be renewed annually for 10 years, with a condition that the loan will need to be repaid only if the tree is chopped down. There are other schemes that incentivize villages to save local wildlife.

In the past, farmers had been compelled to fell trees to supplement their income, but facilitated small grants from the state government, comes as a big incentive to keep them rooted to the ground. And this protection of the forest is actually having immense benefits for a community that was suffering from prolonged dry spells and erratic rainfall leading to shrinking paddy farms and a threat to cash crops such as pepper and coffee.

And so as we contemplate a post-COVID 19 world, where our addiction to consumption may just have been broken, now is the opportunity for us to look for value in protecting and preserving our natural world and if we do so, maybe we can not only save the giant sequoia tree’s but repopulate the planet with them. But to do this we need to be thinking not in terms of our relatively short life spans but of the life spans of these trees, which is 3,000 years. And this means decentering ourselves and to start thinking like sequoia trees.


[Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at]

* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.



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