Science can incline us towards the idea that what matters most are the things we can measure. It tends to help that the things we can most readily measure, we can also point at, and are therefore more able to agree about. How much money you have, how many cars and how big a house are easy things to point at when you want to compare yourself to others. For much the same reasons, governments like to point at employment figures, and do not want to get bogged down in conversations about whether those jobs are any good or worth doing.
Worth is very hard to measure, unless you judge it by money. The same is true of quality of life, happiness, wellbeing, sense of community and the state of your soul. Sure, you can survey people and ask them how they feel, but then you’re relying on self reporting, and of course people aren’t reliable and can lie to you. How do you measure love, friendship or enlightenment? How do you measure and value the way a sunset makes you feel?
That we can more readily measure some things than others invites us to invest more effort and attention in the things we can measure – both personally and as a culture. So we talk about how many lives are saved by different medical interventions each year, not the quality of life for those who continue to live. We take our measure of spending as a measure of how well we are doing as a country, no matter what that money is being spent on. We want faster train travel and more oil and we can measure the profits, and the growth but we can’t measure the value of the landscapes these destroy, and so we don’t measure that value, and we trash something irreplaceable.
I’m generally pro-science. I recognise that by its nature, science can only go around measuring measurable things. Issues like the state of your soul and the beauty of your location are hard to approach that way. The habit of measuring locks us into some very narrow ways of thinking about worth and value. Because money is the most readily measurable thing in the equation, so we down-value what we don’t pay for – the domestic work of women, the dawn chorus, our clean air, the future of our children – we tend to be very short term around how we see the price tags, too.
This all fits in with what I was exploring yesterday (thank you Helen Noble for the prompt on facebook). When you take narrow measurements of value, a certain kind of resource and person will tend to dominate your society. Those who can accumulate material wealth are treated as the most valuable members. Not those who are most generous, or cause most happiness, or do most to enable others. Not those who have brilliant ideas, or who add beauty to the world, but those who have the biggest pile of coins, no matter who they exploited and what they ruined forever in order to achieve that.
Our current value system actively encourages us to trash the planet on which our lives depend. We need to change that, because as the saying goes, when there’s no clean water to drink and no food to eat, you try eating money and see what good it does you.