The morality of resources

“Feeling that morality has nothing to do with the way you use the resources of the world is an idea that can’t persist much longer. If it does, then we won’t.” – Barbara Kingsolver

Published by

Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

7 thoughts on “The morality of resources”

  1. Please elaborate. Is my overconsumption of food a cause for others’ starvation? I don’t think so. Over the past 50 years the world population has doubled, but world food production has more than doubled. The main cause of world hunger is poverty: the food is there, but people can’t afford to buy it. If US farms and exporters and retailers can’t get their price they just let the food rot, living off government subsidies to keep growing anyway. Or they dump food into third-world markets at prices so low that they force local growers of business, then they buy up the land and jack up the prices later.


    1. I wasn’t really thinking about food when I first read the quote…I assumed that she was talking primarily about oil or other non-renewable energy resources. Overconsumption and waste of oil not only depletes the supply, but it also adds carbon into the atmosphere and oceans….etc…..that seems like a fairly clear moral issue.

      I think, though, there are other areas as well….for example, our overconsumption of goods contributes to world poverty because many of our goods are manufactured in sweatshops or by workers who are significantly underpaid. I feel like there is at least some moral responsibility to know the source of the products we purchase and whether or not we are buying stuff cheaply because companies are underpaying employees.

      Perhaps you may consider it a stretch, but as I think about your example of the food chain, I think that there seems to be a moral duty present there as well. True, I don’t think overeating is the moral problem, per se, but I think that participating in the global food system contributes to world poverty, for all the reasons you listed. It is a system of exploitation of the weak and profit for the wealthy. My thought here is that if one is aware that such a system operates in this immoral and exploitative way, a person has at least some responsibility to do his/her reasonable best to not participate in the system and to try to support farmers or distributors who provide alternatives.


  2. It is tempting to regard the economy as an all-encompassing force with a mind of its own: that way I don’t have to regard myself as complicit in its machinations. I agree that it’s misleading, and perhaps even immoral, to regard jobs and commodities as a buffet from which each individual makes choices based on personal tastes. To a large extent the system has already chosen me and so my freedom is limited. The system is certainly going to persist regardless of my little personal resistances. And oftentimes resistance as a consumer means paying more, e.g. for natural foods or fair trade coffee. Even as I salve my conscience I’m aware that maybe only 5 cents on the dollar actually finds its way to the coffee grower; the rest is pocketed by middle men who know that conscience salve for the middle class is by itself worth an extra 95 cents.

    I guess I was thinking about Kingsolver’s quote in the context of her little farming experiment, where she and her family lived mostly on locally grown food. There are those who regard such a choice as morally better than buying food shipped or trucked in from remote locations, which increases use of fossil fuels. Given that this is your personal blog, Erdman, I wondered how you reconcile Kingsolver’s local-food morality with your upcoming salmon fishing job. I don’t know for certain, but I’d bet that not much of the catch is going to be consumed by Alaskans.


    1. As I understand it, there is only a small percentage of coffee drinkers who actually care about fair trade, care enough to vote with their wallets. If more coffee drinkers were conscientious, then this could shift demand in a more significant way. As it is, the fair trade coffee movement can simply be a “conscience salve for the middle class,” as you put it. Still, I try not to buy or drink coffee that is not fairly traded because I don’t want to be helping to subsidize the exploitation of farmers. I make a reasonable effort of doing this. And I think that if more people were asking coffee sellers and retailers where their products come from, it would force buyers to think more about it. As it is, coffee drinkers as a whole don’t care. Many bags of coffee don’t even bother with any kind of we-care-about-farmers language, at least from my observation. So, as far as I can tell, the fair trade coffee trend, as a popular trend, seems to be over.

      Yes, the system will persist, even inspite of my personal resistance, but so what? That doesn’t mean I have to participate in it, does it? At least as far as it is reasonable for me to do so. I can’t completely pull out of the matrix! But neither do I have to thoughtlessly participate.


  3. I’m conflicted about these issues, Erdman. The idea of buying locally-grown food imposes unfair restraint on growers and fishers who can produce more cheaply and who would benefit economically from having access to a wider market. But it’s mostly the middlemen who make the money. The prices at the supermarket have more to do with what the market will bear than with the actual costs of production, processing, shipping, and distribution.

    I feel like it’s the same way with fair trade food. If, as you say, more coffee drinkers were conscientious, then the demand for fair-trade coffee would go up and so would the price per pound. Would the growers see any of this extra money? I doubt it. Wikipedia says this:

    The Fairtrade Foundation does not monitor how much extra retailers charge for Fairtrade goods, and retailers almost never sell identical Fairtrade and non-Fairtrade lines side by side, so it is rarely possible to determine how much extra is charged or how much reaches the producers. In four cases it has been possible to find out. One British café chain was passing on less than one percent of the extra charged to the exporting cooperative; in Finland, Valkila, Haaparanta and Niemi found that consumers paid much more for Fairtrade, and that only 11.5% reached the exporter. Kilian, Jones, Pratt and Villalobos talk of US Fairtrade coffee getting $5 per lb extra at retail, of which the exporter would have received only 2%. Mendoza and Bastiaensen calculated that in the UK only 1.6% to 18% of the extra charged for one product line reached the farmer. All these studies assume that the importers paid the full Fairtrade price, which is not necessarily the case.

    The Fairtrade Foundation does not monitor how much of the extra money paid to the exporting cooperatives reaches the farmer. The cooperatives incur costs in reaching the Fairtrade political standards, and these are incurred on all production, even if only a small amount is sold at Fairtrade prices. The most successful cooperatives appear to spend a third of the extra price received on this: some less successful cooperatives spend more than they gain. There is no evidence that Fairtrade farmers get higher prices on average. Anecdotes state that farmers were paid more, or less, by traders than by Fairtrade cooperatives.

    I don’t believe that market forces will fix the unfair trade problem, nor do I believe that individual morally-guided decisions made by purchasers will fix the problem. Maybe top-down legislation would work, but lawmakers are themselves a kind of commodity bought and sold by big corporate interests. Most gains are likely to come not from anyone’s largesse but from the workers themselves organizing and pushing back for their fair share. I’m not sure how best to support this pushback.

    Meanwhile, I buy almost everything based on price, not as a moral gesture but as a way of saving money. It’s clear that in the world at large, where half the people live on less that $2 a day, supporting fair trade by paying higher prices is an unaffordable luxury.


    1. What if consumers of fair trade coffee were better informed? That would be the responsibility of journalists, then, as well as the responsibility to be an intelligent consumer. If enough fair trade coffee drinkers called out the sellers (who were taking advantage of their generosity), then might that put positive pressure on the market? And suppose you had a lot of fair trade consumers and one of them decided that there was enough demand to make a go of a completely fair trade java joint….I don’t want to defend capitalism too much, b/c I’ve got no dog in that fight! I’m mainly just brainstorming with you….I do agree with your point about workers pushing back, and if there could be some coordination between conscientious coffee consumers and growers, then good things could happen. It is the task of the profiteers, however, to keep that link broken. Ignorance is bliss; that is, the bliss of profits for middle men and the most wealthy.


  4. Veering off-topic now I admit, but one way I save money on coffee is by brewing it myself. My store-bought can of coffee says it makes 240-270 cups of joe, using 1 tbsp per cup. I make my joe in one of those little Italian hourglass-shaped, stove-top espresso makers. I just measured it out and it takes 3 tbsp per brew, so that means I get 60-70 cups per can of coffee. That can cost me about $8, which means I pay $8/60=13 cents per cup. Ah, but I also add milk: about 6 oz. per cup. There’s 128 oz. in a gallon of milk, so that’s 20 cups of coffee’s worth of milk per gallon. A gallon of milk costs about $2.50; divide it by 20 = 13 cents. So, adding the coffee plus milk plus the heat to cook it, I pay about 30 cents per home-brewed double-shot latte. That would cost me what, maybe $4 at a coffee shop? It’s for certain that none of that extra $3.70 makes it into the grower’s pocket.

    This is starting to sound like one of my wife’s schemes a-brewing: brew your own coffee for a week, then send the difference between what you would otherwise have spent at Starbucks to some growers’ association in South America.


Consider this post an invitation, an invitation to comment and collaborate ~ In Solidarity, JE

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