The widespread economic belief that the more we consume, the better things will be for everyone is true only for human beings – and, moreover, it is true only for a limited number of them. For most other forms of life, this simplistic economic principle of wealth creation often has disastrous effects, to the point that many species, which had existed perfectly well for thousands or millions of years before our species’ catastrophic rise to dominance, have become extinct, or their numbers have been drastically reduced.
With some exceptions, such as whales that migrate from one ocean to another, most organisms have only limited and local effects on their environment and on the species they consume in order to survive. But human beings, due to the spread of the model of international trade, can cause harm in many distant parts of the world. We think this is marvellous, that we are able to consume products from so many different places in the world, and in some ways it is; but many of us are not able to see the harmful effects of many of our consumption decisions.
When a person stands in a store or supermarket trying to decide what to buy, one usually does not consider things like how much the workers were paid to produce the product and whether any of them were ill-treated, exploited, or enslaved, whether any animals were harmed or caused to suffer, the amount of toxic substances that were used, how much environmental damage and pollution were caused by its production, and so forth. Most of us think only of things like the product’s price and whether we can afford it, its appearance, functions, and reliability, how good it tastes, whether we really need it, whether it is trendy or fashionable and will make us look cool, how long it will last, whether it is better than alternative brands, and so on. But all of these ignorantly-made decisions, because they are based on incomplete information, can collectively produce very bad unintended effects. For example, most consumers would not want or be able to burn down a forest so they can drink cheap coffee or eat cheap cookies or meat, or cut down an entire forest in order to have cheap paper which they use once and then discard. And neither would they be willing to harm workers in a poor country by overworking them, making them work in dangerous or unsanitary conditions, or paying them less than a subsistence wage, cause suffering to the vast numbers of farm animals that are raised in unsanitary animal concentration camps solely for their gustatory pleasure, or poison a river or parcel of land, thereby killing many of the organisms that live there. But all of these things are frequently done by the free market on their ignorant behalf, all for the sake of encouraging and allowing people to consume as much as possible at the lowest possible price.
Surely it matters that a forest was burned down to produce this hamburger, that child labour was used to manufacture these clothes or shoes, that the habitat of a great many living creatures was destroyed or contaminated to grow the coffee, wheat, corn, soy beans, or meat that one consumes, that rivers or oceans were polluted, that these eggs were laid by hens that were confined in tiny cages during their brief and miserable lives, after which they were slaughtered to provide cheap meat, while most of their male siblings were thrown into a grinder – alive – shortly after hatching, that the sea or ocean bottom was damaged by the destructive method of deep-sea trawling, that a large part of a fishing ship’s catch was thrown back dead into the ocean, that toxic substances were used, produced, or released during the production process, that an entire mountain or hill was levelled to extract the metals that are used in the manufacture of many different consumer or household products, or that workers were underpaid, overworked, or otherwise mistreated or exploited. And yet this information is not provided for the consumers’ knowledge so they can make informed decisions, because the economists declare that it doesn’t matter.
In their myopic focus only on a product’s price, economists completely overlook the complex webs of interconnectivity that exist in all living systems, systems which are vital for our survival, but which, increasingly, are being stressed, polluted, degraded, depleted, and, in many cases, rendered sterile by our thoughtless collective acts of consumption. The unfortunate fact is that what is perceived as being good for human beings, specifically in terms of wealth creation, is often bad for many other living organisms, whose habitats are altered, damaged, poisoned, or destroyed, whose numbers are greatly reduced, or, in the case of farm animals, who are made to suffer throughout their miserable, abbreviated lives. Because economists focus only on monetary transactions – because they ignore and exclude all these other important considerations from their laws, theories, models, decisions, reflections, counsels, and recommendations – they should not be given the dominant voice over these and other important matters, as they have been given until now.
Following the economists’ constant exhortations that free trade is good and it is best to buy the cheapest product possible, in many cases this has transformed the free market into the blind market. By this I mean that the greater the separation, and hence, the more opaque is the veil of ignorance, between the producer of a product and the final consumer, the greater is the likelihood that there will be harmful effects and practices which many consumers would not support or tolerate if they only knew about them. As trade and commerce became more and more distant, from local to regional, to national, and then to international trade, the “free” market has become more and more blind to the many unjust, harmful, oppressive, and environmentally destructive practices that are employed to produce many of the things that people want or need at the lowest possible price. Although most economists declare that this is as it should be, and there is no need to change this state of affairs, there are many reasons why they are wrong.
When production and consumption were local – when, for example, the consumer knew the farmer from whom one bought one’s milk, eggs, and meat – one could see, or at least hear about, incidents of animal mistreatment, illegal or unsanitary practices, pollution, or other undesirable practices and effects. But today, because most consumers don’t see, and consequently don’t care about, how the animals they consume in such vast quantities are treated, only that the milk, cheese, ice cream, eggs, and meat they buy are produced as cheaply as possible, they tolerate and support a system that imprisons, abuses, and inflicts horrendous suffering on these innocent living creatures, whose only crime or misfortune is to be appetizing to a large part of the world’s human population. The fact that many consumers have no idea how the things they buy have been made, raised, excavated, extracted, caught, or killed is why it can happen that many consumers who would be shocked, disturbed, or horrified if they witnessed these production methods with their own eyes nevertheless continue buying and consuming them.
It is completely wrong to say, as the naive economists declare, that whatever is produced by the free market, and in the manner it is produced, is what consumers want. For the truth is that the majority of consumers, if they were able to see the harmful effects of some of their consumption decisions, would change them, as is shown whenever there is a scandal or outcry about a certain practice in some part of the world. In many cases, the free market produces the outcomes it does only because it is a blind market, in which the consumer doesn’t have all the information about how the nicely-packaged product was produced, how much – or how little – the laborers were paid to produce it, and so on. And this is because we have trusted those stupid economists, who argue that competition is good and therefore we should allow unbridled price competition, and that buying everything at the lowest possible price will lead to the creation of the best of all possible economic worlds, in which the sole function of the physical and natural environment is to be transformed into raw materials, which are then transformed by industrial processes into finished products, and all people, or at least the fortunate among them, can wallow in Consumerist, Materialist, Capitalist Heaven.
Of course, the economist will object that anyone who wants to find these things out can do so, especially now with the Internet, which makes such searches for information much easier and quicker than before; and if the majority of consumers aren’t willing to take the trouble to acquire this information, then this is a clear indication that it isn’t very valuable or important to them. But there are serious problems with this cavalier attitude. If producers or companies know that they are employing illegal, harmful, oppressive, exploitative, destructive, polluting, or otherwise unsavoury practices that could, if consumers only knew about them, lead to a reduction in the sales of their product, then clearly they have a very strong incentive to prevent the consumer from finding out about them. In other words, it is in their best interests to keep the market as blind as possible. This is, in fact, the situation that exists in many industries, where companies seek industriously, and by spending large amounts of money, such as by contributing to politicians’ campaign funds and hiring lawyers to intimidate or silence their critics, to conceal these negative aspects of their business practices, while presenting a positive and pristine image to consumers.
As we become further removed from the sources of our sustenance and other needs, it becomes increasingly difficult to see our impact on the rest of the world. How do we know that the food we buy hasn’t been grown with slave labor, using toxic herbicides and fungicides? Because of the huge scale of the economic system, even those who want to do good can unknowingly participate in activities that have brutal and destructive effects. And as corporations become more effective at “greenwashing,” it is ever more difficult to know whether we are really making ethical choices or not.
Those actively promoting globalization are even less able to perceive the far-reaching impacts of their actions. Corporate and government leaders are—almost by definition—far removed from the natural world and the lives of the people touched by their decisions.
Because it leads to more and more violations of the important principle that “What you see is what you know,” free trade has begotten a very dangerous decoupling of the many billions, and perhaps trillions, of acts of consumption that occur each year, and all the negative effects that are produced by these usually ignorant, thoughtless, and frequently selfish decisions. More generally, it is the convergence of five basic principles or human traits that have produced the dire human-made catastrophe that is visible all around the world: 1) the recent emphasis on individualism – that individuals should be free to do whatever they want, provided they do not harm others, which principle obviously applies only to human beings, while it excludes most other living organisms; 2) the understandable but nevertheless highly unnatural desire to save every human child that is born, which has begotten a global human population explosion; 3) the disastrous human limitation that we do not know the many things we don’t see, meaning that we are not able to see or understand the many harmful effects of our actions and decisions; and the economic principles that 4) the cheapest method of production is generally the best method, which, in turn, is based on the mistaken belief that unbridled price competition will produce the best of all possible economic outcomes; and 5) it is better to consume as much as possible, meaning that it is better to consume than not to consume, since this will create the greatest amount of human wealth – which is very different from, and is frequently inversely related to, natural wealth and ecological health and well-being.
Our inability to think and act collectively for the common good, as ants, bees, and some other social organisms can, coupled with these five traits, have, in the course of just a few centuries, produced a planetary disaster. For by acting selfishly, we are imperilling not only the well-being and survival of a great many other living creatures, we are, if we were only wise enough to recognize it, imperilling our own survival.
 This discussion goes beyond the usual meaning of the term “free trade” to examine the effects of its defining characteristics, which are specialization in production along with trade or exchange for the many other things that people want and need in order to survive and live meaningful lives. Clearly this can take place on a local, regional, or national level, just as it does more and more on an international level, which is the usual meaning of the term.
 Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World by Helena Norberg-Hodge, p. 196. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 2009.