The things that money can never buy

Even back in gospel times, they tried to put a price on Jesus, or rather on Judas. Thirty pieces of silver, they thought, was what it would take to bu

May 02, 2016

By Anil Netto
Ever heard of that saying, “Everyone has a price?”

Even back in gospel times, they tried to put a price on Jesus, or rather on Judas. Thirty pieces of silver, they thought, was what it would take to buy over Judas’ loyalty to Jesus.

Today, people are still buying over loyalties, it would seem. We live in a world where everything, everyone, we are told, has a price.

We see it during elections. What does it take to ‘buy’ a ‘voter’s loyalty? The cost of a highway here, a much-needed road there, electricity and water supply?

Think of the politician using all manner of inducements and handouts to buy over voters’ allegiance to their side. ‘Christian politicians too are shamefully engaging in such practices.

The biggest problem is that land, all above and underneath, its “development” potential, has a price too. You can value land. It is easy. You look at the market value of neighbouring plots of land — the prices of land bought and sold, and you can get a fair idea. Once you buy that land, then the thinking goes that you can do whatever you like with the land, subject to planning permission.

So the thinking goes, you can chop down the trees on the land, fill up the rivers and streams and pour out cement and concrete and steel everywhere. After all, so the thinking goes, there is no value on the trees — unless they can be sold as timber.

Some economists have even tried to value, in monetary terms, the wellbeing and peace of mind each household can derive from each tree.

Others have tried to value marine life. In one land reclamation case, the developer attempted to value the loss of marine life in terms of ringgit and sen to the fishing community. Civil society groups quickly found holes in their valuation — it was severely understated and even the assumption for selling prices looked way too low.

When forests on hills are cleared by developers, the argument sometimes surfaces: after all, this is private land; surely the land-owner has the right to clear the land. Not quite. The landowner is subject to planning procedure. And if hill-land is off limits to development, then there is a good reason for it.

It means the value of the hills to the community — which cannot be quantified — is far greater than any profit that can be derived by the landowner from “developing” the hill.

For generations now, we have turned our cities into sprawling concrete jungles in the quest for financial gain. With land prices soaring, local councils find it so difficult to create new public parks and green areas.

Worse, even existing green spaces are under threat — from road-widening exercises, illegal development and developers eyeing a quick profit.

On Earth Day, the Bishop of Rome called on us to transform deserts into forests.

“The desert is ugly, both the desert in the heart of all of us, as well as the desert in the city, in the peripheries, which is also an ugly thing. There’s also a desert that’s in the gated neighbourhoods … It’s ugly, but the desert is there too. We must not be afraid to go to the desert to transform it into a forest, where there’s exuberant life, and to go dry the many tears so that everyone can smile.”

Francis nailed the prime cause of this “desertification” of our lives:

“There’s a word not to forget in this world, where it seems that if you don’t pay you can’t live, where the person, the man and woman that God created to be the centre of the world, to be for that matter at the centre of the economy, are thrown out and instead we have at the centre a god, the god of money.

“Today at the centre of the world is the god of money, and those who can approach to adore this god … they approach, and those who can’t, finish in hunger, in illness, in exploitation … Think about the exploitation of children, of young people.”

This god of money, especially in the quest for corporate and personal profits, is primarily responsible for much of the degradation of the environment.

In an age when everything seems to have a price, nothing seems to be sacred anymore, not our hills, not our rivers, not our seas. How different from the past, when the prophets and Jesus himself would go up to the hills to commune with the Father.

Where did Jesus go during his hour of greatest trial to pour his heart out to the Father? In a little garden, the Garden of Gethsemane, near the Kidron Valley, probably surrounded by olive trees.

Surrounded by natural beauty, Jesus’ words on Nature: he marvelled at the lilies in the field, the tiny sparrows around him, the thought of sleeping under the stars, and told his listeners the Father cared deeply for all of his creation.

Such beauty can never come with a price tag, even in a world where everything seems to have a price. Once lost, it will be hard to replace. Worse, it could aggravate global warming and climate change. It is time we transform our deserts into forests.

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