we did everything ourselves. But when you scoop up a handful of
cabbage seed, it’s like black gold, and you know that that handful
of seed will be fifty tons of heads of cabbage in Holland or Korea
or Africa within a year . . .” He stopped, one palm up in the air,
cupping an imaginary handful of black gold. Words failed him. I
wasn’t sure numbers would be much more help.
THE OPENING OF the Endangered Species Act is labeled “
Findings.” This is what we know to be true:
Various species of fish, wildlife, and plants in the United States
have been rendered extinct as a consequence of economic
growth and development untempered by adequate concern and
These species, the Act goes on to say, are of “esthetic, ecological,
educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the
Nation and its people.” Financial value is not mentioned: money,
the Act assumes, is not what urges us to conservation. Instead
our obligation is “safeguarding, for the benefit of all citizens, the
Nation’s heritage in fish, wildlife, and plants.”
Not a moral, not a resource: a heritage.
To value something means to esteem it, to treasure it. It also
means to assign it a dollar worth. The language of finance and
the language of ethics are wound around each other like vines.
Economists talk as if replacing values with value will cause us
to act in a predictably logical way, but our relationship to property
is not so straightforwardly rational. At times we become attached
to property; at other times we squander it. Sometimes we grow to
hate it. After my grandmother had a stroke and died, my grandfa-
ther began dragging their possessions to the backyard and burn-
ing them. Books, pictures, calendars, furniture, clothing: he fed
his worldly goods into the bonfires of a grief he could never voice.
Relatives went over and snuck things out, to save them from the
flames. My grandfather was not unusual: our connection to the
stu= of this world waxes and wanes with our stake in it. Do econo-
mists never read King Lear Young people care less for things
than they do for inventing themselves, and old people grow im-
patient with their objects, their lands, even, finally, their children
and their own accomplishments. Slowly we loosen our grip.
Where Dave Hedlin picked peas as a kid, farmland was paved for a Wal-Mart.
already replaced by a bigger one, it now sits empty.