The Useless Rock Worth Dying Over
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend. If the advertising is to be believed, they’re a way to make two month’s salary last a lifetime. They’re rocks with a very specific value, and that value is two months of your life. It doesn’t matter your job or how much money you make, diamonds are worth two months of it. Or, so De Beers would have you believe. But to the credit of their marketing team, we’ve all just sort of accepted it. It’s the standard now. But, they are just rocks. Shiny rocks, granted, but rocks nevertheless, and we decide their value. It’s not capitalism that does this, it’s us. Value is deeper than money. Societies that didn’t even have money still valued rocks. Just like here in Easter Island. There is a rock here that is more valuable than all the diamonds in the world. Or at least it was, before we decided it wasn’t. A diamond engagement ring may be an overpriced anachronism, but the point of this episode isn’t to talk about a deceptive industry. I want to look at the concept of value as a whole. Because if something isn’t necessary for survival, what is its value? As far as I can tell, it’s only what we all agree to apply to it. It doesn’t really matter if I see the value of the diamond, so long as everyone else does. Because at the end of the day, if I saw one on the ground, I’d still be excited to sell it. Because the community around us drives value, not the individual. We don’t all have to agree so long as the society says it’s true, or for that matter so long as people we trade with think so. I’m reminded of our time in Cuba, when our new best friend Napoleon greatly wanted the Sharpie we were using to write him our address. When we gave it to him, he was as happy as anyone I’d ever seen receiving a gift. It meant something to him because he couldn’t get it at home. Giving him the Sharpie had increased its value to me, because I saw its reflection in someone who wanted it more. Here in Easter Island, there’s a small rock by the side of the road. They call it Pu o Hiro, Hiro’s Trumpet, and it was once one of the most valued treasures of this society. Holes eroded in its surface turned it into a natural instrument, and when blown the right way it created an inimitable sound. Impossible for the islanders to hear elsewhere. One of a kind. The sound it made was rare, so, of course, it must be valuable. Sacred, even. It was soon named after the local god of rain with the expectation that trumpeting would bring clouds to this constantly parched land. Rain in Easter Island has always been incredibly important. So it’s not surprising they’d do anything they could to induce it. There’s little groundwater, so rain means life. It wasn’t just to water the garden, but to survive as a people. Even to this day, locals are excited when it starts to pour. It means more than just keeping the grass green. Buy water in a restaurant here, and they’ll serve you rain. Feeling in control of the weather here would have been as important as anywhere else on Earth. Survival was by no means guaranteed. But beyond that Pu o Hiro was unique, and in being unique, it had great value. For hundreds of years, control of this rock meant power, influence and respect. Local tribal groups would go to war, not for land, not for wealth, but for the rock. As time continued, the rock became a symbol of control. Not just for the weather, but for everything that society wanted power over. It brought fish to shore, it created fertility, it brought the rain. But more than any of that, it was power. Having this on your part of the island meant you were ahead in the game. Wars were fought to move this just a few kilometers. People died for this. But today? It might as well be any other rock. It has a sign for tourists to read but there’s never anybody reading it. Tourists find it boring, and in modern Rapa Nui, they decide the value of things. Nobody flew all this way for a rock trumpet, they came for the moai. Unless something changes, I doubt it’ll ever be truly valuable again. It’s not that it’s any less rare. We’ve just stopped caring. I’m no economist, but I do understand that people often use scarcity to imply value. No matter how many items you have for sale, calling it a limited time offer will bring in more customers. People will often pay more for the last of something than the first. At least, unless you count iPhones. Diamonds are valuable because clever monopolists locked 90% of them away never to be sold, but this rock is naturally scarce. Yet, it has little to no value today. Because scarcity may be one thing, but desire is another. The cultural impact of an item is just as important as the amount of it that exists. Few people are mining guano today, but at one point guano was white gold. To put it in another way, demand is a reflection of society, not scarcity. For every thousand people who’ve heard of the moai, perhaps one has heard of the trumpet. Pu o Hiro isn’t tall, and it makes a terrible photo. Nobody’s Instagram likes are peaking because of this rock. I’d be amazed if even a tiny percent of visitors here stop to look at it. It doesn’t make sense in our modern world. It invokes no cachet, no religion, no war. The original value is dead and nothing has come to replace it. We know now that it doesn’t cause the rain, it won’t make your semen more potent or your egg more fertile. Having it on your part of the island offers no more respect than leaving it where it is. The tribes are gone. And now it’s simply a historical item from a different time. Even to the local people, whose ancestors would have swung clubs into the heads of their brethren just to control it for a few years? It’s a rock. Something someone else used to care about. Humans decide what has value. The world, for the most part, is what we make of it. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder but more than that, it exists in the eye of society around us. You may not care about the value of a diamond, but it doesn’t really matter, because other people do, and they’ll kill you for it. James Bond was wrong. Nothing lasts forever, not even diamonds. Pu o Hiro once brought rain, fish, and fertility to this land. It was truly a rock of the gods. But now, it sits by the side of the road, rated two-and-a-half stars. Just another rock. This is Rare Earth. Now I can feel the energies. They’re flowing, they’re flowing! *HMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM* Does that work for you? How are my energies?