You are an object

How commodification of life creates global harm

5 minute read

You are an object. You may not like the idea of being an object, but you are. The author of this article is an object too. Other people, animals, forests, even the planet are all objects. These objects have all been assigned an innate value relative to other objects. As an object, your “internal world” is largely irrelevant; your value doesn’t really depend on what you think, feel, or believe, but rather your use. Your value and that of other objects is assigned based on a set of criteria determined by a small, elite group of Homo sapiens – typically involving very little consultation with the objects being objectified and assessed. Some objects are valued highly. Others, not so much.

This object-focused view of the world has transformed people, animals, and ecosystems from living, independent beings into commodities. Things to be bought, sold, used, and ultimately discarded when their usefulness is expended. Elements of our world that were once sacred are now merely “something to use.” People are dehumanized; other living beings are devitalized. You hear this view embedded in the language of business and society: workers are human “resources,” ancient trees in a forest are part of an “inventory,” and old cows are “inefficient producers of flesh.” These kinds of terms are so immersed in our way of thinking that it’s like water to a fish – we simply don’t even realize what we’re swimming in.

While there have been many benefits to objectifying the world, this view also contributes to many, if not arguably most, of the global challenges we seek to address with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Objectification of our world contributes to issues ranging from climate change and environmental degradation, to social injustices, to inequities in economic opportunity.

We have not always been objects though.

Origins of objectification

Throughout human history until perhaps 250 years ago, if you wanted to understand the world, you turned to your local religious leaders. Religions and spiritual traditions provided not just guidance for how to live, but served as the authority to explain everything from the birth of the universe to why famines and deadly storms and untimely deaths and other “unexplainable” phenomena.

Then the scientific revolution brought an entirely different approach: using a formal, rigorous process for studying and verifying “what things are” and how they came to be.

This revolution has brought vast benefits to the majority of the humans who have lived in this era of history. It continues to do so.

But one thing that has been lost as these benefits accrued was a recognition that not all kinds of “value” can be measured. 

In this view of the world, if something can’t be observed objectively, that is to say treated as an object, then it is considered invalid or irrelevant. The idea of being a “subject” – an individual being with a distinct interior world that is unobservable, unknowable, and unmeasurable – was lost. We lost sight of the “intrinsic value” of life and earth itself, which is independent of any exterior criteria set out by a single group of people based on their own views and mental filters. This increasingly includes not just the value of things like forests, animals, and entire groups of people, but even our own moral value systems that are based on an shared subjective experience.

Over this period of our history, we began to only see things in terms of their value to us. And by us, this typically means a narrow proportion of the total human population: a band of light-skinned Homo sapiens originating from the European continent.

Moving to silos

As the reliance on this object-focused view of the world increased, so did the number of individual areas of study increase. Everything became an object to study and understand, and thus everything was dropped into distinct silos. We see the “economy” as one object, “society” as another, and the “environment” as yet another distinct object. Within each of these, there are many other sub-objects, each of which is studied and considered in relative isolation from the other objects.

These silos have limitless depth – an incomprehensible number of aspects, features, elements, and so forth – thus, you could spend your whole life just studying one object. You’d be the world’s leading expert on that object, knowing its every observable and measurable characteristic.

Except what it’s like to be that object. In other words, to be the “subject” of an experience.

You can know every imaginable objective feature of a maple tree; but you can never know what it’s like to be a maple tree. 

Or to put it into human terms, you can study a subject such as racial justice for a lifetime – but if you’re not part of a group of people who have experienced racial injustice and inequity, then no amount of study, no textbook or research paper can ever point to what it’s like being that person. You have to be on the inside to understand what’s going on inside.

You can study indigenous communities, their beliefs, rituals, and daily practices. But you can never truly understand their worldview, unless you are one of them.

Understanding this emphasizes all the more the need to have many voices at the decision-making table.

Shared roots: Moving towards integration

This object-focused view of the world has brought benefits, to be sure. Our understanding of the universe, our expertise at identifying and eliminating illnesses, our mastery of technological innovation to solve problems – these are vital improvements to human society.

But to focus entirely on all things as objects has diminished our world in many ways. Some things simply cannot be measured or understood through observation.

They have to be experienced. 

They have to be seen as sacred, independent entities with an interior world equal to our own. 

As such, the “use” of a person, animal, or ecosystem as an object for personal or societal benefit should be done with a care that borders on reverence – rather than a sense of “expectation,” as is currently the case. We expect these objects to be available and willing to be used, as if that were the purpose for their existence.

Solving some of our greatest challenges will require coming to terms with this objectification and subsequent commodification of living beings and other “resources.” It will require recognizing the limitations of a purely objective, measurable world, and taking a more integral view encompassing also the subjective world of interior experience, belief, perspectives, and values.

We have become masters of understanding “what things are.” We also need to become masters of “why should we care.” Recognizing the immeasurable value of all things regardless of their commercial or practical value could go a long way in transforming our world for the better.

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