The subtitle of Raj Patel's The Value of Nothing questions 'why everything costs so much more than we think.' It's an intelligent, dense book that explores our modern society, its economic context, and the very real implications of our lifestyles. Patel sustains his main thesis, that the true value of goods and services are completely at odds with their prices as set out by the market, while people never give it a second thought. Patel wrote an amazing piece of added-value content for our Book Guide here that explains, in short, the kinds of material things we pay heavily for but that are relatively cheap.
I'm not going to lie, this isn't an easy book to read -- Patel looks at everything under a microscope, he digs deep into economic theory and pushes the reader to think hard about what he's saying. The very idea that, as a society, we are blind to the terrible impact our consumerist ways are having on the world around us despite seeing it, literally, every day, is compelling. In ways, it's easy for me to support Patel's work. I believe in his politics, sit slightly to the left, and have already been convinced that we need to change as a society before we ruin everything. Like Patel, I believe the first step to change is concerted dialogue about the issues, exactly the kind of thinking that is represented here.
However, what really struck me about the book concern post-colonialism. It's not surprising to me that issues with modern economics are so essentially tied up in old colonial models. We don't think about it everyday. We don't turn on our work blackberries and think, "hey, I'm exploiting the Congolese today." Has anyone else out there read King Leopold's Ghost? Hasn't the Congo been through enough? But I can't stop it -- I don't have a personal cellphone but I do have my BB and I use it all the time, every waking moment, and I don't think twice about what went into building it or sourcing it or the power that it takes to use it. I send money every month to David Suzuki and the WWF to try and balance out my consumption. Somehow, I feel ashamed that I'm not doing enough.
You can't be faint of heart when you read this book. You can't expect to be unchanged. And you can't imagine you'll keep living your life as you had been living it. Once you know the true value of what we consume, the cost to human life, the cost to the planet, you'll think hard and then you'll think twice.
READING CHALLENGES: The Better You Read The Better You Get. Oddly, I'm, um, not actually finishing the books from my shelves. However, I do feel like reading more nonfiction has reminded me that it's important to challenge yourself with smarty-smart material every once in a while. School's good.
Read an excerpt of The Value of Nothing here.