Cheapness is an essential value of Americans and, therefore, it’s also one of our most important environmental values. How we price the world, assigning value to resources (natural and human), affects our environmental impacts immeasurably.
In a materialistic culture like ours, we like stuff, and we can buy more stuff if it’s cheap. So we’re very conscious of price: we love bargains and we love to get things “on sale.” To some extent, this is a good thing. As Daniel Miller says, it’s part of “making love in supermarkets,” the way we love our families by making our money stretch.
But our price fixation helps us forget about cost—the real cost, social and environmental and spiritual, of the cheap stuff we buy. In Wal-Mart America, when we mindlessly prefer low, low prices to high, high standards, we buy into a world that devalues God’s creation, a world that exploits people in other countries, pollutes the air and the countryside, and ravages the earth for raw materials. In the long run, our cheap stuff can be really expensive. Twenty years from now, in a time of intense global weirding, today’s two-dollar T-shirt won’t seem like such a good bargain.
Cheapness can have spiritual costs as well, both because it affects our sense of human being, and because it affects our stewardship of God’s creation. Sometimes our consumer choices actually change who we are, warping our personalities to conform to our purchasing preferences. When this happens, our cheap purchases have a potential not only to satisfy our preferences, but to transform our preferences, so that we gradually find ourselves becoming persons we never wanted to be—people who can be satisfied by cheap stuff and easy pleasures, and who won’t strive for more substantial satisfactions. We generally think of consumption as what we get, but sometimes a consumer mentality gets us. And when that happens, God’s creation groans, because cheap prices are a spur to increased consumption, which ransacks ecosystems for the resources that go into our clothes and cars and food and fantasies.
When we opt for cheap stuff, we often overlook more conscientious possibilities. To replace the value of cheapness, therefore, we might consider the value of value itself. In a culture of consumption, we already talk about a good value. But in a culture of conscience, a good value would mean more than mere cheapness. A good value would be one that reinforced the values we really care about. A good value would add value—and not just money—to the lives of the people who produced it. And it would add value to the ecosystems that provided the energy and materials to produce the product. A good value would help us sustain the natural systems that are, as God said in Genesis, “very good.”