Scarcity and Abundance
By Mike Nickerson
Big change is in order !
Why does inequality continue to grow? Why is pollution threatening our health and our planet? Why don’t governments address these concerns? Discontent is spreading. Populations around the globe are protesting and voting governments out of office. Something is wrong.
Frustration grows as Governments stick to the obsolete theory that economic growth will put everything right. Unfortunately stimulants for growth – privatization, austerity, deregulation, open markets and the like – no longer deliver enough growth to include everyone, and the planet suffers. The intense competition nurtured by these policies has people either making fortunes or facing destitution.
Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” explains how self-interest stimulates growth. In his 1776 publication “The Wealth of Nations” he explained that people do more good for society when they work to enrich themselves personally than they do if they intentionally set out to ‘do good’, “. . . as if guided by an invisible hand.” It made sense at the time because, if one wanted to become rich, one would work hard to provide goods or services that people would pay for. Pots and pans, clothing, food, education and the like were needed. If enough capital could be accumulated to set up an industry or institution, these things could be provided in quantity and at a relatively low price.
Because they provided much to society, the rich were respected and the accumulation of capital become a goal – Capitalism. Those informed by the spirit of capitalism were comforted in thinking that “greed is good” and that the money so generated would take care of everything.
This notion has fuelled enormous growth. More wealth has accumulated than can be invested in practical production. Even after funding gargantuan operations to wrestle ever more resources out of the Earth, the majority of capital now streams into speculative finance where it does little public good and can destabilize entire economies. One might say that the invisible hand of the market is maximizing its competitive advantage and picking pockets.
The “Invisible Elbow” is another concern. In “The Green Economy” Michael Jacobs chose the elbow analogy because elbows “are sometimes used to push people aside in the desire to get ahead. But more often elbows are not used deliberately at all; they knock things over inadvertently.”
Humankind’s enormous “elbow” is now disrupting planetary systems. Fossil fuel use and the extraction of natural resources are running into limits. Inequality grows as wealth continues to concentrate, infrastructure is deteriorating and the costs of education and health care are becoming prohibitive for many.
A new vision is needed to make our world fair enough that people will cooperate, and enlightened enough to maintain the health of the planet we depend on.
This requires more than just fine-tuning the existing system. It requires a change of heart. In the interview copied below, Bernard Lietaer explains how underlying archetypes guide the evolution of civilizations. Before the age of empires, our ancestors marvelled at the abundance that Earth provides. One seed could produce hundreds of seeds, animals multiplied. For countless thousands of years, Earth was recognized and revered as the mother of all. The “Earth Mother” archetype is formative in the human psyche.
With the emergence of empires, the underlying sense of the Earth’s abundance was eclipsed by the forces of centralized command. Lietaer draws on the work of Carl Jung who found that “whenever a particular archetype is repressed, two types of shadows emerge, which are opposites of each other.” By the time Adam Smith made his observations, the Earth Mother archetype was deeply buried and all he saw around him were the shadows: fear of scarcity and greed, to avoid scarcity.
Scarcity abounds because debt-based money requires more money to be repaid than is actually available and those who can gather more than they need. Competing for scarce money generates competition between those who will thrive and those who will lose their homes or businesses – unless economic growth enables both to endure a while longer. More detail can be found in my previous post Life After Growth. *
A different money system
Very different results come with a demurrage-based money. Demurrage is a small fee charged for the use of a currency. As a result of the money losing value the longer one holds onto it, it is not put aside for another day. Rather, people look for early opportunities to spend it, which gives employment to others.
The Austrian town of Worgl adopted a demurrage currency during the deep depression between the World Wars. Quoting another article from Bernard Lietaer, “After two years, Worgl became the first Austrian city to achieve full employment. Water distribution was generalized throughout, all of the town was repaved, most houses were repaired and repainted, taxes were paid early and forests around the city were replanted.” ** Instead of being stowed away, the money in Worgl was being used 14 times for each single time that money was being used in other parts of the country. Each time money was used, someone did something creative. The result was abundance.
The abundance created in Worgl wasn’t brought about by money. It was a result of the people applying their knowledge and creativity. This is the critical detail. Dollars, pounds and pesos are tools. Civilizations are the product of the tasks that people do.
A task is an activity that accomplishes something. Putting a paving stone into place, nailing boards together, writing something or playing a tune are all tasks. Such tasks accumulate into walkways, houses, books and enjoyment. The tasks we do and the way we perform them depends on the spirit that informs us. A society informed by the spirit of capitalism will unfold in one way – when informed by the spirit of the Earth’s abundance something quite different will emerge. It is a question of direction. ***
The stories that embody the vision of humanity’s purpose are the DNA that determine how the collective human organism unfolds. As we come to share the story where everyone is important and the health of the Earth is known to be critical to our survival, we will shift from the old system to the new.
Revere the Earth. Appreciate whenever she provides for you. Respect her limits. Good food, energy efficient shelters, clothing, education and much of health care can long be provided within the limits of our abundant Earth. As the vision of our hearts shifts toward loving this magnificent Earth, the tasks we do will build the world we need.
Mike Nickerson is the author of Life, Money and Illusion; Living on Earth as if we want to stay. He lives near the Village of Lanark. His work is collected on this site and the Eco-Village site.