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Too cheap

March 4, 2014

The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that society’s downfall is the ability to produce goods cheaply. The ability to buy inexpensive food and goods has turned ours into a wasteful society. Most people in the United States no longer save, reuse, and repurpose every item we own; instead, we throw an item away if it will take too much time to clean or repair. Patch torn clothes? Eh, new ones don’t cost much. Repair a busted TV? We wanted the newer model anyway. Save the leftovers for stew? No need to take up room in the fridge when we can buy canned stew for $1.69.

It’s sad that for middle and upper-class Americans so many everyday items can be so easily replaced. It causes us to lose appreciation for what we own—and, I would argue, to lose our perspective. For in reality, nothing is cheap to produce nor to dispose of. Our produce is only so cheap and our clothing only so inexpensive because immigrants and impoverished people around the world are willing to work long hours for low pay because they can no longer make livelihoods as small farmers or artisans—and they can’t afford to make their livelihoods as small farmers or artisans because the industrialized world produces goods so cheaply via mechanization that their hand-sewn crops and clothing can’t compete with low-cost modernized goods. So there is a high human cost hidden by the low ticket prices of much of what we buy.

There is also an environmental cost. It may be cheap enough for soda and beer producers to part with every bottle in which their products are sold rather than reclaim them for rebottling (as used to be done), but the economics of the situation obscures the environmental cost of adding immensely to landfills. As a former resident of the state of Pennsylvania, where a large portion of New York’s garbage is disposed of, I can attest to the extreme downside of all this wastefulness. One of central PA’s precious rivers—used for fishing, kayaking, and swimming—became so polluted by seepage from a nearby landfill that people could no longer safely use it for recreation.

There is another hidden cost still: the cost of our health. Producing food cheaply requires industrialized agriculture on a scale so large and monolithic (with emphasis on mono) that we are destroying the health of our soil, which in turn spoils the nutritiousness of our food. Think you’re eating healthy by having your five fruits and veggies each day? Think again. As Michael Pollan notes in his book In Defense of Food, you would have to eat four modern, conventionally farmed apples to get the same nutrition as you would from a single apple grown decades ago.

If everything from apples to zippers incorporated the true human and ecological costs into their prices, I believe we as a society would be so much healthier and harmonious—certainly not perfect, but definitely better. We would likely own much less, but we would be much more appreciative of the true costs of eating well and staying warm, and we would ensure that people around the world earn a livable wage for the things they help to produce.

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