DIANA SOMERVILLE COLUMN: Deciding what our world is worth

ON THE SEATTLE ferry last week, I was excited to see that if you buy a large coffee, it’s $2.50.

With your own large travel cup, it’s $1.

Excited? Yes!

That big price difference signaled another way of assessing the price of paper cups.

The real cost goes beyond any wholesale price. It includes the life cycle of those cups, the energy used and the pollution released in transforming raw materials into single-use throwaways.

It accounts for the energy and materials to package, ship and distribute them — plus the manpower, energy and materials to haul discards to a landfill.

Bring-your-own discounts invite us to pay attention to the hidden costs of stuff we take for granted.

A coffee shop discount for using your own cup or a store refund for bringing your own shopping bag represent votes for other, more sustainable ways of doing business.

They signal that dollars are not the best way to value our natural, human or economic resources; that dollars ignore the importance of conserving resources so our grandchildren may enjoy them, too.

Dollars are a poor measure of unpolluted air, for instance.

Clean air means healthier people, better crops and tourist-attracting scenic vistas. Clean air doesn’t damage buildings or pollute our rivers and oceans.

Forests clean our air and water, prevent floods and erosion, gladden our hearts with seasonal color and shelter other plants and animals.

Yet their value is measured in board feet.

The inadequacies of the old yardsticks are playing out in struggles around the world.

Treating water as a commodity has created a nightmarish clash of values, laws and regulations that The New York Times waded into last month (see http://tinyurl.com/ng739t).

Michigan and Wisconsin communities are challenging corporations hoping to sell a gazillion bottles of their local water.

In Uruguay, Ecuador and Bolivia, citizens beat back corporations that sought to privatize national water supplies; Colombia wrestles with making safe, adequate water a human right.

(Learn more at www.foodandwaterwatch.org/water.)

No question that clean water is essential to life and health, agriculture and fishing. Is access to water a human right? Or is it something that can be bought and sold?

Battle lines frame our health care debate in terms of money or power, overlooking significant questions like:

Is health care a commodity or a human right? Is it OK to make obscene profits trading on human pain and misery? Who decides what health care I need? Can I decide for you?

Stay tuned as global discussions wrestle with interconnected environmental and economic issues and the life-and-death moral questions surrounding climate change.

An encouraging sign: Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in economics for showing how shared resources — forests, fisheries, oil fields, grazing lands and irrigation systems — are best managed by the people who use them, not governments or private companies.

“What we have ignored is what citizens can do,” Ostrom said. She’s shown that the rules for using resources efficiently also foster community and engagement.

A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, Oscar Wilde observed.

Now we’re gradually eliminating old-fashioned pricing — and you’re invited to help determine what we deeply value.

Want to get involved?

Jim Williams heads a group looking at ways to balance prosperity and sustainability on the Olympic Peninsula.

E-mail him at [email protected] or phone him at 360-670-6424.

The League of Women Voters is deciding on two local sustainability projects. Learn more from Caroll Hull via [email protected] or 360-683-5199.

Visit the Local 20/20 Web site: www.L2020.org.

The nonprofit North Olympic Peninsula Resource Conservation & Development Council embraces Clallam and Jefferson counties. Contact Clea Rome via [email protected] or at 360-457-5091.


Diana Somerville, an award-winning author and science writer, lives in Clallam County and can be contacted via www.DianaSomerville.com.

Act Locally, her column on sustainability and the environment on the North Olympic Peninsula, appears every other Tuesday.

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