by Raj Patel

A top ten list of things that aren’t as cheap as you think.

#10 Bottled Water – Bottled water sounds like it should be cheaper – it’s 200 to 10,000 times more expensive than tap water. But in the US, the annual energy wasted on bottled water adds the equivalent to 100,000 cars on roads and 1 billion pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. And the price we pay for water doesn’t begin to address the longer term issues of global shortage for something that everyone needs to survive. Make a start: stop your local government from wasting your money on bottled water, as we did in San Francisco.

#9 Cellphones – We’ve all got them. The trouble is that one of the minerals inside our high tech toys – coltan – is bought very dear indeed. With around three quarters of the world’s reserves of coltan in the Democratic Republic of Congo, our demand for gadgets fuels bloody conflict and vast human suffering. The No Blood on My Cellphone campaign shows how we can stop it.

#8 Double cheeseburger – A value meal is a great way to eat if you’ve neither time nor money but this cheap food turns out to be ‘cheat food’. What if we had to pay the full environmental, labor and health costs of a burger? Some researchers think we’d end up paying over $200, and that doesn’t include the modern day slavery in our North American sandwiches.

#7 Fish fingers – The world’s oceans are being emptied. When I was a kid, our fish fingers were made of cod. Now the species is commercially extinct, and we’re within a generation of killing everything in the seas. Yet the price of fish is still just a few dollars a kilo.

#6 A Free Lunch – Rudyard Kipling came across the free lunch in the nineteenth century in San Francisco, where he “paid for a drink and got as much as you wanted to eat. For something less than a rupee a day a man can feed himself sumptuously in San Francisco, even though he be a bankrupt.” But the freebie ends up being a way to reel you in to consume more. And, yes, my own book is being sold this way too, with a free chapter and video. There’s no moral high-ground for me – I’m a moral low-ground sort of person. But that doesn’t stop me from encouraging folk to get the book from a library.

#5 Googling – Would it shock you to know that two Google searches produces the equivalent greenhouse gases of making a cup of tea. The London Telegraph reported this last year, and while Google denies it, it’s certainly true that global information technology is responsible for 2% of all greenhouse gases.

#4 Toxic waste – Larry Summers, President Obama’s chief economic adviser, was once a senior economist at the World Bank. When he was there, he wrote in a confidential but since widely cited memo that “Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Less Developed Countries]?” He argued that poor people valued a clean environment less than the rich, and so pollution should flow to them. And it has, with rich countries dumping their pollution on poor ones, undervaluing their lives and the damage it causes.

#3 Low income jobs — Part of the reason that food and energy are cheap is so that working peoples’ wage demands are kept in check. In Canada, average real wages have increased by just 1% in two decades – and in the U.S. similar long term trends for working class people (and severe declines in the value of minimum wages.)
But around the world, minimum wages fall far below what families need to survive.

#2 Gas – The way we live to day depends on our not paying the full costs of fossil fuel – with thousands already dying and many billions being lost right now. While figures of $65 trillion a year for the real cost of fossil fuel are almost certainly wrong, with 300 million people affected, it’s already a disaster. We need to bring our governments to heel if we’re to leave a world worth living in to our children.

#1 Women’s work – The world wouldn’t turn without the work of raising children, and caring for family and community. But it’s the work that is most often and quite literally taken for granted. If the work that women did were to be paid, how much would it cost? Researchers put it at $11 trillion in 1995, or half the world’s total output. Movements demanding a basic income grant are laying the foundations for this new way of working and living. Valuing women’s work would, more than any other single thing, transform the way we think about our economy and society.


Here are some other links from groups involved in coltan, toxic waste, and food. Feel free to suggest others in comments.

Another Update

David Roberts at Grist has a fine response to this list. I omitted coal from the list simply because energy (coal, nuclear, natural gas, agrofuels, etc) is hugely underpriced and the entire list might have been filled only with those examples, but David’s quite right to point out the real cost of coal. More here.  Φ

Raj Patel is an award winning writer, activist and academic. He has degrees from the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics and Cornell University. He has worked for the World Bank and the WTO, and has protested against them around the world. His first book was Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, and his latest, The Value of Nothing, is a New York Times bestseller. His blog is here.

Leave a Reply