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Shambhala Sun | July 2011
You'll find this article on page 27 of the magazine.

For What It's Worth: A Q&A with Raj Patel

When activist, academic, and bestselling author Raj Patel was growing up in Britain, his favorite thing at his parents’ convenience store was the price gun. He loved to set the price of a Mars bar at £999.99 and the price of his little brother at 0.01p, because, as he wrote in his book The Value of Nothing, "My brother wasn’t worth 0.01p, and the notion that he might be exchanged for that, or for anything else, was the source of my own private comedy." Yet, he added, politicians and the business elite don’t get that kind of joke; they think prices can be attached to everything. In this interview, Patel talked about the current economic model and alternative ways to value the world around us. He declined to speak about a fringe spiritual movement’s claim that he’s the maitreya or messiah, but has repeatedly asserted that he’s an ordinary human being. "The thinking I advocate is pretty straightforward," he wrote on his blog. "One doesn’t need a messiah to show how capitalism has damaged our relationships, society, ecology."—Andrea Miller

The economic system seems to be built on the idea people are selfish, maximizing individuals. Do you think we’re naturally selfish?

As any Buddhist knows, there is the side of us that craves and, for want of a better word, is selfish. But that’s not the only part of us and, you don’t need to be a Buddhist to understand that. Every human civilization understands that there are parts of us that are not greedy, not about pure self-gratification. The only people who are like that are deemed antisocial and pathological. The trouble is that we set up our economies to reward selfish behavior, and corporations—the artificial people among us—are selfish. Governments are too, to some extent, but corporations in particular are the paradigm of selfish, greedy individuals. They don’t have any remorse when they break the law. Profit, for them, comes before compassion.

In The Value of Nothing, you talk about the expression "the tragedy of the commons." Can you elaborate on that?

The idea of the tragedy of the commons assumes we are all selfish and greedy. For example, assume that we all live in a village, and around this village is a forest that nobody owns. By the logic of the idea that we are all selfish and greedy, we will go into that forest and we will chop it down and use it for firewood. We will forage for nuts and berries. We will shoot squirrels. And because nobody owns the forest, no one will stop us, and, again, because we are selfish and greedy, we will keep on chopping down, shooting, foraging, and picking, until we destroy the forest. So the tragedy lies in the fact that with eyes wide open we will knowingly, collectively, destroy the resource on which we all depend.

But the interesting thing is that if you look at how human beings actually behave, we’re really quite good at managing things together. We’re not all selfish and we don’t require that anyone own land for us to manage it. The reason that this idea of the tragedy of the commons has such political purchase is because we’ve seen desolate, destroyed landscapes, and we assume that they’re in that state because of human greed and an inability to manage things together. But if you look at where resources have been super-exploited, it’s because either corporations or governments have been allowed to have their way. We see in study after study that if communities have enough space to make mistakes, to recover from natural disasters, and to make their own rules about how they manage property, they do much better than governments or corporations that try to do it for them.

With governments and corporations holding the reins of power, how can individuals take back some of that power?

One of the most enduring myths about modern economics is that we are individuals moving through society. Sometimes that economic myth can become a political one as well, and we can all feel very debilitated by it. Individually, it doesn’t feel like we can do a whole lot. But it’s a myth that we are powerless, and one of the reasons I wrote The Value of Nothing is to point to communities that have ignored this myth. We are more powerful than we think. There are a lot of things we can do, not as individuals rattling around our houses, but together, as part of a community. If hunger is something that particularly outrages you, there are more than 200 food policy councils around America that are fighting to make sure that food banks are no longer necessary. If what upsets you is climate change, there are more and more transition towns, where people are figuring out ways to become zero carbon communities. We are powerful when we come together and it’s something we’re going to have to do a lot more of, whether we like it or not. But, actually, greater happiness lies in coming together—a transcending of the self. No amount of consumerism can ever approximate the happiness that comes through generosity and giving.

Can you give me some examples of groups or communities making positive changes?

In terms of thinking about other ways of governing and other ways of managing resources, there’s loads of stuff happening. Fed up with the federal government to deal with things like climate change or hunger, a lot of municipalities have taken the lead and there we’re seeing really interesting stuff happening around reducing the carbon footprint of cities and making food available to everyone who lives within a city. What is central is the notion that we, as citizens, can govern ourselves, that we have the power to value the world around us, and that by taking back that power and engaging in things like public policy, we can ensure that there’s a way we can manage resources in common, rather than letting the market do it for us.

One story I find inspiring from here in the San Francisco Bay Area is a Meals On Wheels program that takes the produce of local farmers and has it transformed into great, healthy meals by at-risk youth. The young people are trained in the culinary arts and in sustainable food processing and management. Then the food they make is given to the elderly and disabled who are homebound. This Meals on Wheels program is a nonprofit, and to help cover costs they ask for donations from the people they give meals to—people who earn less than $10,000 a year. When the nonprofit switched from industrial food to this amazing organic food that was seasonal and fresh and cooked by young people in the area, the donations that they got went up by tens of thousands of dollars. That’s a sign that people are able to understand when they’re being treated with respect.

Why did you name your book The Value Of Nothing?

The line comes from this Oscar Wilde quote—"Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing." What I was trying to do in this book is what Oscar Wilde did throughout his lifetime—figure out other ways of valuing the world around us. In fact, we have a lot of different examples right now about how we might value the world together differently, and those examples are inspired by everything from traditional indigenous cultures and their economics in Mexico to the Buddhist economics of E.F. Schumacher. The Value Of Nothing is in many ways a book written for Buddhists—not just for Buddhists, obviously—yet there is a Buddhist sensibility in it.

But you’re not a Buddhist are you?

No, I’m an atheist Hindu, but that’s fine because it turns out that being a Hindu, you can be a bunch of other things at the same time. There are Buddhist ideas I feel are tremendously compelling. I don’t have to commit fully to the eightfold path to understand that there’s a great deal of value in problematizing attachment. Right there I am fully behind the wisdom of Buddhism.

From the July 2011 issue of the Shambhala Sun. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

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