From scarcity to abundance

by Geoff Olson

Many of us consider philosophy to be a specialized field of study, with little real-world application. Yet we’re all philosophers of one kind or another. We all have our own ideas about love, freedom and the meaning of life – or its non-meaning. These ideas, though not always articulated, often guide our lives to a surprising degree.

Just as fish don’t have any notion of the medium they swim in, one particular belief system so thoroughly pervades our culture that most of us would be hard-pressed to identify it as a philosophy at all. This is the notion that life is defined by a competition for dwindling resources. The philosophy of scarcity has dominated cultural life in the West – and academia, business, government, the military and beyond – for the past few hundred years and pervades everything from PBS nature documentaries to reality television shows like The Apprentice and the Survivor series. Its essence is summed up by hard-nosed realists and their dictum “There is no free lunch.”

As a philosophy, scarcity is given substance by real-world examples. Oil, water, food, money: all appear to be in perennially short supply, as expressed by the recent meme, “peak everything.” Famine, drought and wars over territory make scarcity seem the norm for the planet, rather than the exception. But how much is our perception of scarcity driven by a cultural consensus that it is fundamental to existence? There is a real world out there, a world that often fails to deliver us the goods, but there’s no denying that our relationship to it is conditioned by our beliefs and interpretations.

For some time now, a different idea has been brewing in popular culture: the philosophy of non-scarcity, or abundance. The exploration of this idea, however, has been mostly limited to extropians and science fiction writers and ignored by academia. “Abundance” has been a word relegated to evangelical and new age groups.

In his blog, Wired editor Chris Anderson noted this absence from academic dialogue: “My college textbook, Gregory Mankiw’s otherwise excellent Principles of Economics, doesn’t mention the word abundance. And for good reason: if you let the scarcity term in most economic equations go to nothing, you get all sorts of divide-by-zero problems. They basically blow up.”

One of the greatest shifts in human thinking came with the discovery that the world was not flat, but round. This implied that the finite globe could be circumnavigated and its territories mapped and conquered. In the early 1600s, Queen Elizabeth founded the East India Company, a mammoth trading monopoly that was given charter rights to create proprietary colonies anywhere on Earth. The East India Company was both the Halliburton and Blackwater of its time. It mapped out and mopped up the resources of distant lands, while encouraging the inhabitants to become pious, proto-Britons, or at least compliant widgets in its worldwide labour machine.

Lieutenant Fletcher Prouty, author of The Secret Team, notes how the East India Company founded Haileybury College in England to “train its young employees in business, the military arts, and the special skills of religious missionaries. By 1800, it became necessary to initiate the task of making an Earth inventory, that is, to find out what was out there in the way of natural resources, population, land, and other tangible assets.”

The first man put in charge of this vital census was Robert Malthus, head of the department of economics at Haileybury College. He is remembered today as the prophet of scarcity, author of the enormously influential 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population. In this treatise, he proposed, “Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetic ratio.”

In other words, unchecked population growth always exceeds the growth of means of subsistence. In modern parlance, we call it the “carrying capacity of the environment.” The actual population growth is held in place by “positive checks” – starvation, disease and other disasters – and “preventive checks” – postponement of marriage, contraception and other practices that reduce the birth rate.

A certain young naturalist, having recently returned to England from the Galapagos Islands, had an ah-ha moment when he came across Malthus’ essay. Surely, constraints on population acted as the driver of animal adaptation through a “survival of the fittest.” Charles Darwin introduced his revolutionary theory of evolution through natural selection with the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species.

Both Malthus and Darwin have received a bad rap over time. But the problem wasn’t so much with the signal as the reception. Malthusians and Darwinists didn’t just seize on the new thinking to justify the status quo; they found entirely new ways to rationalize brutality. The monstrous legacy of eugenics in the US and Germany, along with the pseudoscientific justifications for racial desegregation and the sterilization of “mental defectives” – to say nothing of the “ethnic cleansing” – owe much to self-serving interpretations of Malthusian/Darwinian ideas. And, of course, there’s the perpetual idea that the wealthy and powerful owe nothing to the weak and powerless, which was now given moral authority by supposedly ironclad laws of nature.

The “white man’s burden” and other paternalistic notions about bringing freedom and democracy to indigenous people also owe plenty to this nineteenth-century meme.

Malthus, the first demographer for transnational interests, mapped the world’s resource base. The British Empire did the rest. In a remarkably transparent speech to parliament in 1914, Winston Churchill said, “We are not a young people with innocent record and a scanty inheritance. We have engrossed to ourselves an altogether disproportionate share of wealth and traffic of the world. We have all we want in territory, and our claim to be left in the unmolested enjoyment of vast and splendid possessions, mainly acquired by violence, largely maintained by force, often seems less reasonable to others than to us.”

The idea that might makes right, and its justification through scarcity, still persists today. There’s an enduring current of thought in western culture that we, as individuals, nations or species, adapt and improve through making others lose. Even though evolutionary biology has come to see cooperation as important as competition, the social sciences have yet to catch up. Classical economics still persists in the notion that human beings are “rational utility maximizers,” isolated agents that are driven by nothing more than self-interest. Modelling more subtle forms of behaviour, such as the altruism within families and communities, would simply make the numbers blow up.

One thinker who saw through this self-serving cant was Richard Buckminster Fuller, best known for his contributions to mathematics and architecture, including his “geodesic dome.” With his elfin stature and coke-bottle-thick, black glasses, the Bostonian became an instantly recognizable icon for intellectual adventurism in the sixties. He wore many hats, including that of poet, urban critic, social scientist and global planner. (A decade after his death, an enclosed molecule was discovered that actually follows the “synergistic” geometry Fuller believed would be found on all levels of nature once researchers began to look for it. In his honour, the molecule was named buckminsterfullerene, or “bucky ball.”)

While Fuller believed that properly applied design science could free all human beings on the planet from poverty and ignorance, “advantaging all without disadvantaging any,” he noted that the correct application of these sciences was perpetually held back by “ignorance, fear, and zoning laws.”

Born into a very wealthy Boston family, Fuller had a unique insight into the Malthusian mindset of the ruling class. In the biography, Bucky: A Guided Tour, author Hugh Kenner explained how a “rich uncle did Bucky the favour of taking him aside to explain in Boston’s terms how the world was.” The unpleasant, but unassailable, truth was this: there wasn’t enough to go round for everyone. “This had apparently been proven mathematically, three generations early, when the statistician Thomas Malthus demonstrated exactly how population tended to outstrip resources.”

The balding Brahmins of Boston, like the elite class elsewhere, “had outgrown the era of the Golden Rule, the formulation of a less crowded world.” As Bucky’s uncle explained, “The possessions of the haves were now founded on the destitution of the have?nots, and despite Sunday?school pieties serviceable to placate women, that was henceforth the unalterable state of things.”

In Kenner’s retelling, the rich uncle told the young lad that it was necessary for a rich man “to cultivate enough of the red tooth and the unsheathed claw to ensure that he and his loved ones should be haves. This was not nice, and he need not distress the innocent by talking of it, but there was really no choice.”

It had been established that a man’s chance of passing his life in any comfort was about one in 100. “It is not you or the other fellow,” the uncle explained; “It is you or one hundred others.” To prosper in the Fuller way with a family of five, he would have to slit the throats – genteelly, of course – of 500 others. “So, do it as neatly and cleanly and politely as you know how, and as your conscience will allow.”

By imagining historical necessity and biological destiny were one and the same, Fuller’s relatives had discovered that human evolution had peaked, by good fortune, with themselves. Bucky ended up rejecting their Scrooge-on-steroids reasoning, believing it to be based on nineteenth-century, closed system thinking.

The architect and mathematician believed the world is rung by what he called, “lawyer assisted capitalism.” The original sin of LAWCAP was to believe that the struggle for finite resources condemned the majority of the world’s inhabitants to misery, while providing wealth and comfort to only the most cunning and predatory. Wrong, said Fuller. Since the end of the eighteenth century, technology has “emphemeralized,” increasing the energy yield of resources while simultaneously discovering new resources.

With late Victorian industrialization, steam power supplied work “for free,” beyond human or horsepower and factories could be kept going throughout the night. Malthus foresaw none of this – how could he? – nor could he have predicted the scientific discoveries of the twentieth century, which created entirely new markets and middle class wealth, along with increasingly sophisticated weapons of destruction.

Fuller insisted that population does not increase steadily, but actually levels off when design science extends to all its members. In fact, demographic studies have consistently demonstrated that one of the most significant factors in reducing national birth rates is the education of women.

As American philosopher Robert Anton Wilson once observed, “Known resources are not given by nature; they depend on the analytical capacities of the human mind. We can never know how many resources can be obtained from a cubic foot of the universe: all we know is how much we have found thus far, at a given date. You can starve in the middle of a field of wheat if your mind hasn’t identified wheat as edible. Real Wealth results from Real Knowledge, which is increasing faster all the time.”

So what does the economics of abundance actually look like? We’ll take a look at this next month.

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