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Scarcity is often defined as the subject matter of economics, giving rise to choice. Alternatively, abundance is seen as sitting outside economics, beyond the realm of choice and trade-offs. The question is sometimes asked: “Is there an economics of abundance?”
Discussions of scarcity and abundance are not confined to the field of economics; they occur in theology, among psychologists and social theorists, though the bête noire in the argument is frequently economics. The claims for abundance in theology emerge from God’s bounty: Walter
Brueggemann characterizes our age as one where “money is . . . a kind of narcotic. . . . The great contradiction is that we have . . . more money and . . . less generosity.” He writes,
The conflict between . . . abundance and . . . scarcity is the defining problem confronting us at the turn of the millennium. The gospel story of abundance asserts that we originated in the magnificent, inexplicable love of a God who loved the world into generous being.
The scarcity creed, in contrast, tells us that
there’s no giver. We end up only with whatever we . . . get for ourselves. This story . . . gives us a present tense of anxiety, fear, greed and brutality. . . . It tells us not to care about anyone but ourselves— and it is the prevailing creed of American society.
Jesus spoke of abundance in his parables: “Many people . . . haven’t a clue that Jesus is talking about the economy.”
These two “mentalities” also influence personal growth and business management. Steven Covey wrote, “The Scarcity Mentality is the zero-sum paradigm of life” where people “see life as having only so much.” So whatever anyone gets, there is less for everyone else. Such people “have a very difficult time sharing recognition and credit, power or profit . . . and . . . being genuinely happy. . . .” Conversely, the Abundance Mentality asserts that there is enough for all: “It results in sharing of prestige, of recognition, of profits, of decision making. It opens possibilities, options, alternatives, and creativity.” In some ways, the difference is similar to “the half-empty or half-full glass,” with respect to whether one focuses on what is missing or what is there. The psychological distance between these two mind-sets is significant. Much advice is offered on how to move from a scarcity view into a healthy abundance approach.
How can one move to an abundance approach if one’s thinking insists on scarcity as an organizing principle? As the psychotherapist Meredith Hines sees it, negative thinking brings about negative results.
What is so pernicious about a scarcity mentality is it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you see the world as scarce and perceive the success of others as threatening, you project an air of desperation that is off-putting towards opportunity. . . . When you can rest in a place of abundance . . . you radiate an attractive, positive energy.
Shaun Rosenberg explains, “If we believe that life is full of love and happiness, then it will be. If we believe that our life is full of lack then that is what we will find instead.” Ben Barker, a psychiatrist, talks of how these ideas shape our social order: “Civilizations which endorse the idea of scarcity . . . tend to be rigid and structured. . . . The philosophy of scarcity is tinged with envy, greed and meanness” and leads to materialism, while “adherents to the philosophy of abundance . . . are life-oriented rather than thing-oriented . . . The ideology of abundance presumes that the wealth of the universe is boundless . . .” and this view will promote personal and economic development through “an open, receptive social order.” Karim Benammar sees materialism as “a response to a lack, a scarcity within us, a deep-felt psychological need for reassurance through consumption”:
Scarcity thinking is linked to fear and unfulfilled needs; abundance is . . . a sense of the bounty of living. . . . This sense of gift, generosity and abundance without return . . . does not fall under the rhetoric of exchange. Moreover . . . for some values, the more one gives, the more received. . . . This is the fundamental quality of love.
The clash of abundance and scarcity cultures in business suggests that they are irreconcilable, like what happens to cooperation when exposed to competitive forces: Service to others shall not mix well with self-orientation.
Scarcity issues appear right at the core of economics. Texts such as that of Adel Daoud start with scarcity and seldom mention abundance. Scarcity is seen as the subject of economics, which begins and ends with insatiable wants against limited means, with trade-offs inherent to human existence. Here, abundance has no economics since there is enough for all: The economic problem is solved. Universal scarcity excludes abundance from economics.
The case for a “postscarcity economy” of abundance stands on advances in nanotechnology and other spheres. Self-replicating automated mining of asteroids, energy from nuclear fusion or solar-powered satellites, and products from personal nanofactories or fabrication laboratories automated through artificial intelligence all are invoked to imagine economies of abundance. Jim Pinto remarked, “Any technology which creates abundance poses problems for any process which existed to benefit from scarcity,” as abundance strives to lower prices, while scarcity yearns to raise them. Many economists have addressed the “artificial” scarcities in market economies, according to Roberto Verzola.
Frederic Bastiat said it best long ago: Every producer seeks to limit supply and encourage demand to raise prices and profits, while every consumer wants to encourage supply and limit demand. An economic system that favors producers will emphasize scarcity, while “the interest of the consumer runs parallel with the public interest” in seeking abundance. As Norman Brown explained, because capitalism “cannot endure its own abundance . . . [it] needs to generate an imposed scarcity.” As Wolfgang Hoeschele put it, “The fact that it is profitable to create scarcities . . . leads to infringement of freedom, to social inequity, and to environmental unsustainability.” Nurit Bird-David argued that “the assumption of scarcity . . . acts to preserve poverty.” Sauvik Chakraverty called the economics of scarcity “a huge mistake.” These conflicting creeds of scarcity and abundance show, for entertainment and publishing, the abundance model clash of rarity versus ubiquity as a means to raise value; the practical implications are that “in an abundance model, scarcity looks like a mistake,” according to Kristine Rusch. As Angus Matthew explained, “In the networked economy, the more plentiful things become, the more valuable they become. . . .Value is derived from plenitude, the concept of abundance” (p. 2). The economy of the digital world is one of fuller connection, not of individualistic gain.
There are also ecological economic arguments over scarcity and abundance. As such, economists often note, not pricing the scarce resources of nature is just as socially detrimental as putting a price on knowledge! The lack of an economics of abundance keeps us ignorant of its strictures. For example, a healthy ecological system has strict requirements that must be protected; economists are complicit in a waste of natural capital, when any expert could tell us about the difference of living on the income from capital and consuming our seed corn (as a matter of flows and stocks). As Benammar said,
There is in truth nothing abundant about depleting the natural and human resources of a bountiful planet in the fastest way possible. Rather, it is a deep sense of insecurity, fear and scarcity thinking . . . and this way of acting, like all pathologies, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A critical problem in this regard, according to Frederic Jennings is the short-term myopic cultures spawned by profit incentives in market economies. Scarcity and abundance stand at two ends of a single continuum of value and distribution; they are related to another spectrum of interdependence: substitution and complementarity, and they each call for quite different forms of social organization.
The scarcity model in economics supports a competitive view of society in which acquisitive values structure relations of opposition that, according to many experts, spread a sense of fear, envy, and inequity onto us all. The abundance model, in contrast, promulgates social harmony and generosity in its sharing of value with others and supporting common property measures and distributional equity. The scarcity model, according to Frances M. Lappé, is based on selfishness, stasis, separation, and competition and drives a social system built on power abuse, secrecy, and a culture of blame and dishonesty. In contrast, the “ecomind” model (of abundance) is based on connection, ongoing change, and a process of cocreation, described as “thinking like an ecosystem.” The positive qualities of this “ecological” view embody a sense of fairness, cooperation, and connection in the design of its social system. “With this reframe, both our compassion and motivation can grow” within “a more functional social ecology” that Lappé calls a “Living Democracy.” Such an approach will overcome “our economy of waste and destruction” because “much of the terrible dysfunction evident today . . . is the result of social systems perversely aligned with our nature.” For Lappé and many others, a new economics of abundance is under way and in reach, although it will call for a cultural transformation away from mentalities of scarcity into a sense of fruition and generosity hard to imagine today.
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