Hello, my fellow shelter-in-placers.
I hope you are doing well.
These are challenging times. So if you are mid-struggle, please set aside this paper for now. Come back to it when you are able to declare partial or temporary victory.
An incomplete or impermanent victory is about all we seem to be able to manage, despite our best efforts. How many times have we gone to war (against each other, our environment, viruses, etc.), protested, established new religions, appealed to each other’s better angels, experimented with political and economic ideologies, and betted on technological breakthroughs, only to have the familiar problem raise its gnarly head a year, a decade, or a century later?
To our credit, we have never given up. When challenges arise, we rise up too. But if we want to escape the clutches of our Groundhog Day like problems, we need to figure out what, if anything, is causing our problems to recur, dooming our solutions and efforts, and, in fact, causing our big problems. Well, here is the answer. This paper is the payoff for us not giving up.
The common link between our big problems, our failed solutions, and our doomed efforts is that they are all based on the intuitive idea of permanent scarcity, represented by the twin beliefs that resources are limited and more is always better. These beliefs inspire us to develop resources, but they also trigger behaviors and actions that create our massive problems.
The good news is that if we track the development of resources and our problems, we will find that they trace a recurring pattern that ends, every time, with resources not being limited and more rarely being better. In other words, the beliefs are false. The intuitive idea of scarcity is false. The troubles we are causing ourselves and others is mostly unnecessary.
The simple(!) answer is to replace the false idea of scarcity with the truer idea of tempered abundance, which reflects the beliefs that resources are already or potentially plentiful and that more is only better when more is also managed better.
With tempered abundance as the new basis of our solutions, we should be able to solve existing problems, forestall new ones, and reverse the effects of past problems; build bigger pies, instead of squabbling over shrinking ones; completely restore degraded ecosystems, not simply protect them from additional damage; and repair past injustices, not simply promote justice going forward. We will be able to base our actions on kindness and common sense, and become better humans! We will also be able to do this quickly, because most of what we need to make these changes already exists.
All this would be mere wishful thinking if the intuitive idea of scarcity were true. So that you also see that it isn’t, let’s accompany resources on their journeys of development.
THE JOURNEYS OF RESOURCES (THE PATTERN)
A resource’s journey begins with the resource being scarce and available only to a select few. Next, entrepreneurs, adventurers, and others set out to exploit it. Time passes, and months, years, decades, or centuries later, the once scarce resource becomes ubiquitous. It is not equally distributed, but it is everywhere. At the end of its journey, the resource becomes commoditized or obsolete.
The first resource (for me, i.e.) to make this journey was salt. For centuries, salt was so rare and valuable that it was used as a currency. The second was pepper (or spices, in general), and the third was sugar. Here are others: tea, coffee, cotton, tobacco, timber, precious metals, iron, coal, oil, rubber. The exploitation of these resources led to the creation of massive fortunes.
Then I discovered something astonishing. Everything we value, not just resources, makes this journey.
Consider this partial list: water, food, clothing, housing… ships, trains, cars, airline travel… roads, bridges, telephone lines… casinos, drugs, alcohol, pornography… computers, smart phones, social media… plastics… guns, weapons… literacy, knowledge… religions, democracy… medical care… laws, regulations, bureaucracies, public pension obligations, taxes… franchises, economies, credit, money…
All the above started from nothing or close to nothing. Then they became ubiquitous and unevenly distributed. Last, they became (or will presently become) commoditized or irrelevant. Note that, at this final stage of their journeys, every resource, product, service, and idea that was once thought to be scarce is not. The idea of scarcity is repeatedly falsified.
The repeated eradication of scarcities would be a testament to human ingenuity except that the idea of scarcity, reflected by the twin beliefs that resources are limited and more is always better, unleashes three types of problems – tragedies, really – during the resources’ journeys.
1. The exploitation of resources is accompanied by mindboggling levels of human misery and environmental degradation.
All the pain inflicted on native Americans and colonized Asians originated with the search for sea-going routes to access spices. Slavery in its modern form and all the suffering heaped on the first enslaved Africans, their descendants, and anyone who looks like them, started with sugar. Every resource’s discovery and development was/is probably attended by similar suffering, in kind if not in scale.
The first belief – resources are limited – creates this problem, because the belief drives us to act out of fear and greed – a surefire way to bring out the worst in us.
The promise of gaining resources inspires wars and colonization, during which resources are seized with impunity. If we live in a country that once was or still is a colony, we are living with the consequences of these resource grabs. The colonizers may have returned home and wars may have ended, but we are surely living on land that was stolen by or from our predecessors, speaking a “non-native” language, living within borders that were arbitrarily drawn by a remote bureaucrat with an inaccurate map, or living with the legacy of specious beliefs about the superiority and inferiority of peoples.
To test the theory that it is the belief that resources are limited that triggers fear and greed and that in turn leads to resource grabs, answer the opposite. Do unlimited or undervalued resources generate fear and greed and inspire imperial conquests?
2. During the unequally-distributed-ubiquity stage of the journeys, some people suffer terribly and/or die from having too much of a desired thing even as other people lack it.
Here are examples of amazing resources/discoveries/inventions and the suffering that results from their surpluses: Salt: hypertension. Sugar: diabetes. Tobacco: lung cancer. Coal and oil: greenhouse gases. Fertilizers: eutrophication. Plastics: pollution. Cars: traffic congestion. Drugs and alcohol: addictions and overdoses. Guns and weapons: mass killings and wars. Justice: mass incarceration. Literacy and universal education: student debt. Democracy: political action committees and voter apathy. Credit: sub-prime mortgages and predatory lending. Money: public debt. Social Media: loneliness. Development: habitat destruction and mass extinctions.
When an item is rare and valuable, acquiring it fulfills a need or want. It also becomes a status symbol, because it can signify that the possessor had something rare or did something extraordinary to deserve it. Status symbols originate in scarcity, but then replace it as the driver of our urges. The desire for recognition keeps us collecting more even after the item has become abundant, even though others still lack it, even after our needs and wants have been fulfilled, and even if having more would harm us. It becomes an unlimited or undervalued resource that we simply accumulate and discard.
The second belief – more is always better – creates the problem of some people suffering from having too much even as others suffer from not having enough.
3. During the final stage of the journey, when extreme surpluses of once scarce resources become commoditized or obsolete, unwelcome “corrections” in the form of natural and manmade disasters, economic recessions, changed consumer tastes, and disruptive technologies are triggered and result in universal suffering.
Current examples include epidemic levels of diabetes, climate change impacts, and mass extinctions.
RECAP OF THE PATTERN: THE DEVELOPMENT OF RESOURCES AND PROBLEMS
Everything of value begins its journey in scarcity, travels through unequally distributed ubiquity, and ends at commoditization or obsolescence. The idea of scarcity inspires the journey’s start and creates three types of problems, one for each stage of the journey. The journey ends with the idea of scarcity made false.
The above pattern has been our constant companion on our journeys of development. It hasn’t been affected by our faith or lack of faith in God. The pattern has unfolded regardless of which religion, form of government, political party, or economic ideology has been ascendent. It has continued during wars and peace. The pattern’s sole cause is the idea of scarcity.
THE IDEA OF SCARCITY
We subscribe to the idea of scarcity for a few reasons.
First, actual scarcities afflicted us for most of our history. Although we have been eliminating scarcities for the past 100 years or so, this information isn’t widely known and accepted.
Second, and related to the first, scarcity makes intuitive sense. In nature, we see plants and animals engaged in an endless struggle for resources, and conclude that resources are limited. We see a proliferation of, say, plants and snakes, when water and rats, respectively, suddenly become plentiful, and conclude that more is always better.
But we’ve jumped to wrong conclusions. Nature’s resources are not limited. They are abundant. The infinite potentials contained in seeds and sperm aren’t lost when they become plants and animals. Nature, at its pace, over millions of years, grows and diversifies, with new species continually emerging to consume resources. Nature, however, tempers its abundance. It grinds inefficiencies out of its processes to ensure that resources are consumed thriftily. It manages growth in proportion to the current availability of resources. It establishes balances between species through feedback loops and a blend of cooperation and competition.
Third, in home and in our communities, we are exposed to the idea and reality of scarcity from birth. Families everywhere, even wealthy ones, are forever occupied with the allocation of limited resources – food, toys, money, energy, time, attention. On special occasions – birthdays, holidays, the arrival of visitors – we temporarily suspend thoughts about scarcity and shower the honored individuals with what they would otherwise be denied.
But temporary scarcities within families and communities shouldn’t be conflated with permanent scarcities in society. Individuals and families can and do lack things even as society has surpluses of these same things. People are going hungry in record numbers today, even though food waste (not food production, food waste!) would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, were it its own nation. We have record numbers of homeless people and empty luxury apartments at the same time. Poor people are denied credit or are loaned money at usurious rates while surplus monies are sitting in deposit accounts earning nothing.
Once we accept that we have been deceived by our observations and experiences, and that resources are, in fact, already or potentially abundant, the next step is to replace or reform existing institutions that are founded on the idea of scarcity and that have accelerated the pattern’s development.
Joint stock companies, corporations, limited liability companies, and their relatives in the private and public sectors weren’t designed to eliminate scarcity but to maximize the production or processing of something. They have the potential to eliminate scarcities. Their processes generate surpluses. The problem is with their design.
Each is set up to produce or process one thing, limitlessly, without a feedback loop to manage output. Each offers only a self-regarding solution, rather than a systemic one. Each requires its owners and managers to limit risks and maximize returns. Not one is required to take care of the environment or people – the most we ask is that they not pollute and not discriminate.
With producing or processing maximally being their only goal, the institutions naturally and single-mindedly standardize for maximum efficiency. The inevitable consequences are loss of diversity, accumulation of waste, consolidation of power, and desecration of life. These, in turn, have terrible impacts on our physical, mental, financial, and emotional well-being.
Standardization / Loss of Diversity
The standardized and unimaginative outputs of our institutions can be seen everywhere. In our towns with their malls and strip malls, in the cars we drive, the fish we eat, the computers and phones we use, the clothes we wear, the software license agreements that we accept unread, the offices we work in, our accents across the nation, the parties we vote for, and the people we elect. Our choices have shrunk to between one and four for most things, and even these options aren’t substantially different from each other. Our institutions and their processes grind out all diversity from our lives.
When many institutions producing the same thing do so efficiently, the next logical outcome is their consolidation. The initial multitudes clump into monopolies, oligopolies, or franchises, which then get absorbed by conglomerates. The trend is slower, but as relentless, in the public and nonprofit sectors.
Accumulation of Waste
To ensure that the endless quantities of their standardized outputs are consumed, the institutions use advertising, public relations, building in obsolescence, and all possible sales gimmicks (loss leaders, upselling, pyramid schemes, multi-level marketing, volume discounts, package deals, bait-and-switch scams, subscription models, low payments with high interest financing, adjustable rates with teaser low interest rates, fundraising, begging, guilting…) to make us buy more.
When real scarcities are eliminated, the institutions create artificial scarcities or induce us to imagine them, to keep up the pressure on us to consume. We succumb and fill our homes and garages with an unending stream of products. We build bigger homes and rent storage units to keep up with the flow, but fail as the stream becomes a river and then overflows alongside our highways, and into junkyards, landfills, (real) rivers, other countries, and oceans.
Consolidation of Power
The pressure on institutions to find homes for their products isn’t relieved just by them pressuring us in turn. They need to open up new markets, strengthen their competitive positions, and weaken regulations that impose limits on them. So they offer incentives to facilitate expansion. Sometimes the incentives are legal, as in payments to lobbyists to help pass or influence laws, and sometimes not, as in bribes to public officials. Sometimes the institutions receive incentives from public officials, who want their cities or states to be the sites of the institutions’ new factories. Regardless of the legality of the incentives, or the direction of their flow, the net effect is the same. The institutions’ production capacities increase, as does their clout.
Their increased power makes limiting production even more difficult. Countless dollars have been spent on, for instance, wars on drugs, alcohol, obesity, and corruption with no effect on the flow of drugs, alcohol, food, and bribes.
Desecration of Life
The institutions’ increased power also results in their focus shifting from producing limitlessly to existing for their own sake.
Feed lots and growth hormones are used to maximize the outputs of cattle and dairy cows with no regard for their welfare. Similarly, we become faceless beings to be processed, to be sold to, or from whom to extract maximum output. We are subject to minor inconveniences like minimal leg room sections in airplanes, lines in theme parks, and targeted online advertising, to major horrors like debtors’ prisons, concentration camps, and immigration and “justice” systems.
The Impact on Us
The loss of diversity, accumulation of waste, consolidation of institutional power, and desecration of life take their toll on us.
The identities that we create for ourselves based on big ideas – God, Country, Serving Humanity, or the Sanctity of Work – devolve into small uninspiring institutions and their functionaries – God into temples and priests, Countries into governments and bureaucrats, Serving Humanity into hospitals and insurance companies, and the Sanctity of Work into bosses and payroll taxes. Our lives are reduced to meeting production and sales quotas.
If we don’t hit these targets (now, increasingly, even if we do), we don’t earn enough to pay our bills. So we turn our homes – which were once our sanctuaries – into investments to flip, we seek divine intervention in the form of a winning lottery ticket, we work multiple jobs, or we simply fall behind.
If we are lucky enough to have a well-paying job and it is with an institution that is contributing to the world’s biggest problems, we have to create a false narrative about our workplace and our work for our peace of mind. If whistleblowers point out that our emperor is wearing no clothes, we attack them!
We become a mess of contradictory ideas. We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions, and convince ourselves that we are “good” and “they” are “bad”, even though our thoughts are no clearer and our actions no better than “theirs”.
We stage minor acts of rebellion – “no added sugar”, “reduced salt” – to larger acts of rebellion – campaign finance reform and peaceful demonstrations – to major acts of rebellion – religious and economic reform movements, revolutions, and war. But resistance is futile. The tsunami of products flows unabated, as do the problems they engender. The pattern unfolds inexorably.
We can’t live guiltlessly, unless we are sociopaths, because to thrive in a society based on the idea of scarcity means that our success has come at someone else’s expense. Doing for others and expecting nothing in return, paying it forward, is simply not sustainable.
The cumulative impact of this cognitive dissonance, resulting from the gap between who we think we are or want to be, and who we are forced to be, makes us despair. We try to forget by eating, drinking, smoking, gambling, and spending. Nothing works. We end up addicted, debt-ridden, lonely, anxious, depressed, and prematurely dead.
When we come up short in our search for meaning and when our attempts at reform fail, we conclude that God/nature did a poor design job or humans are bad. So our logical solutions – we need to make the best of a bad situation, after all – have ranged from prescribing austerity (for others!), to partying like crazy, to preparing for the Armageddon, to fantasizing about life on earth with fewer or no humans.
THE IDEA OF SCARCITY IS DEAD. LONG LIVE THE IDEA OF ABUNDANCE.
The idea of permanent scarcity is no longer valid. It is the source of our biggest problems today. It is the obsolete foundation on which our institutions are built. It is dooming our solutions and efforts. And it is draining us physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially.
Both beliefs – resources are limited and more is always better – that represent the idea of scarcity need to be replaced. Addressing the problem of scarce resources without also addressing the problem of simultaneous surpluses and deficits won’t work.
Software companies are not subject to physical resource limitations. The first belief doesn’t apply to them, but because they have not addressed the second belief, we still suffer from the problem of simultaneous surpluses and deficits. Socialist and communist states, with their planned economies, managed growth, and distribution policies, have had some success dealing with simultaneous surpluses and deficits, but because they have not addressed the first belief, they haven’t succeeded in eliminating real scarcities.
The idea of tempered abundance must replace the idea of permanent scarcity, first in our own minds, and then as the foundation on which to rebuild existing, and build new, institutions.
We need to look at a resource at the beginning of its journey and figure out how to overcome our temporary incapacities to release its inherent abundance. In the past, we overcame a resource’s scarcity through war, competition, collaboration, luck, and persistence. In the future, we can deemphasize war and destructive competition, and emphasize constructive competition and collaboration.
We must remove the incentive to produce, process, sell, and consume without limit. We must encourage, then require, institutions to incorporate feedback loops to establish optimal levels of production, accept products and surpluses at the end of their lifecycles to be “remined” or “repurposed”, automatically ratchet down production based on cumulative impacts, and dismantle or repurpose their facilities when these are no longer needed. Licenses to do business must be contingent on the institutions also providing, and setting aside funds to implement, decommissioning plans for their products and facilities.
The pandemic has highlighted our deficiencies and magnified our pre-existing problems. Trying to revert to a “normal” pre-pandemic state, because these are familiar and comfortable to us and to our institutions, will result in real scarcities coming back to haunt us. Emerging institutions with promising solutions will get squashed by existing institutions, and even if emerging institutions and their promising solutions succeed in getting established, the pattern guarantees that these promising solutions will turn into tomorrow’s problems.
So our existing and emerging institutions must be (re)built on the idea of tempered abundance. Then we can implement solutions with more assurance that these will transform our lives for the better and not come back to haunt us.
WALKING THE WALK
Over the next few months, I hope to build on my fifteen-year long experiment with abundance. I plan to incorporate some of the above solutions in an entity, with an incentive structure that makes “doing the right thing” easy and automatic. I hope you run your own experiments with tempered abundance, so that we can quickly repair past injustices, restore degraded environments, create universal prosperity, and then tackle new challenges!
Thanks for reading.