We continue our presentation of Roberto Verzola’s essay, ‘Studying Abundance‘.
Following yesterday’s explanation of the different aspects of abundance, Roberto now formulates a typology distinguishes five different kinds of abunance.
“Taking into account these various ways of classifying abundance, we suggest the following tentative classification to highlight the differences among the various types. The first three, in a way, represent the three fundamental building blocks of the universe: matter, energy and information. The last two take care of opposite or orthogonal concepts and ensure conceptual completeness.
1. Material abundance
Matter exists both in animate and in inanimate – living and non-living – form. Biological goods become abundant because they have evolved, over eons, the built-in means to reproduce themselves and yet to maintain a dynamic balance that does not overwhelm the finite world in which they exist.
While the means of reproduction of information goods is external, usually through human agents or automatons on the information network, the means of reproduction of biological organisms is internal.
They contain their own programs for reproducing themselves.
Maintaining ecological abundance is less a problem of ensuring the right conditions for the reproduction of life and more a problem of ensuring that we humans do not destroy those conditions which are favorable to the reproduction of life. Over millions of years, various life forms have evolved to optimize their capacity to reproduce themselves under existing ecological conditions. All we need to do is to respect these conditions and make sure our human activities do not modify them to the extent of threatening the ecological abundance that promises us a perpetual stream of ecological benefits. Furthermore, we must learn from the way ecological systems reproduce themselves indefinitely without having to grow without limit. The secret is in establishing closed material loops fueled by the sun. These closed loops are circular food chains that encompass every element of the system. Together, they form a food web that eventually reaches a dynamic balance highly resilient to environmental stresses.
Think of depositing money in the bank, where it earns a fixed interest. As long as you don’t touch the principal and withdraw only the interest earnings, you will get a perpetual stream of benefit out of that fixed amount. This used to be the situation in most of the living world, where our natural capital gave us a perpetual flow of natural income. As long as human civilizations protected the principal and withdrew from nature only a small portion of its products, we would have been able to enjoy nature’s abundance in perpetuity. Today, in most of our renewable resources, we are drawing not only the interest but portions of the principal. In the future, there will be less interest earnings to enjoy, and if we go on our unsustainable way, the principal itself will soon be gone. This is the situation today in many of our renewable resources.
Do not take the principal-interest analogy too literally because of a moral hazard: bank are often engaged in unsustainable lending due to the fractional reserve principle, which create a financial bubble. Matter and energy cannot be created and we have to live with the material and energetic limits handed on to us by nature. Money, however, can be created by the privileged few, who become scandalously rich by simply creating more money for lending and earning interest from, while everybody else has to work hard and make sacrifices to earn a living.
Though non-living objects like metals, sand, rock and so on, do not reproduce, there are other means of keeping them abundant. We must remember that matter is never created or destroyed, only transformed. Consider metals. Even if the world’s metallic reserves were all eventually mined and used up (this would be an environmental disaster!), the metals will not be gone. The millions of tons of gold, silver, iron, copper, aluminum, tin and other metals which have been mined from the bowels of the earth for human use on the ground will still be around us. All we need to do is locate them, gather them and reprocess into into usable forms once again. The key to abundance in inanimate matter is durability, reusability and recycling.
Imagine a programmable weaving machine with built-in facilities to cut and sew, such that threads go in at one end of the machine, and shirts, pants, coats, dresses and other wearables come out at the other end. The process is software-driven. You can go to the Internet, where people might share their own designs for a particular style of wear, download the software freely, customize the dimensions to your specific requirements, and run the program on the machine. One can easily imagine a similar programmable fabricator for, say, wood. Give it a piece of plywood or a length of 2×4, as many as necessary, and with the right program downloaded from the Internet, you can make your own chair, frame, shelf, table and other furniture or toys. This approach is already possible with metal, using software-controlled universal milling machines.
Instead of instead of cutting, chipping or scraping away material from a workpiece, one can also work from the other end and add material to a workpiece. As early as the 1990s, a “3-d” printer that deposited epoxy layer by layer to a workpiece, to build up any three-dimensional shape, was already commercially available.7\ It could make toys, gears, intricate parts, moulds and a thousand other things. The only limit was one’s imagination, captured in software. Such 3d printers have since become common commercial items. If the working raw material were made recyclable too, then this can be another answer to the challenge of making material abundance accessible to more people. Enabling the machine to handle a mix of plastic, wood, metal and electronics can turn it into a software-controlled personal fabricator. This is what MIT’s Media Lab has been working on since the turn of the century.8 It doesn’t even have to be a personal fabricator. A whole community can share one.
2. Energy abundance
Although it is one of the least tapped by modern technologies, our greatest source of energy abundance is the sun.
Solar energy is a source that is incredibly immense and practically infinite in terms of human scales. It continuously provides a steady source of diffuse energy, from a distance that is far enough to spare us most of the damaging side effects of the infernal processes that fuel the stupendous generation of that energy. Through the appropriate use of collectors and concentrators, the sun’s diffuse energy may be transformed into medium- to high-quality heat which can then be converted into other forms for a wide range of uses.
Solar energy is still not absolute in abundance. It is not available at night, for instance.10 So, in addition to collectors and concentrators, storage devices are also needed to make it available when the sun is below the horizon.
Non-renewable sources of energy are a special challenge. Once gone, they are gone forever. That is a huge ethical burden to a society with a conscience. We have built our civilizations on the shaky and short-term foundations of fossil fuels or the shakier foundations of radioactive fuels. As a result of this flawed decision, we have reached a dead-end, ending up with a global greenhouse problem resulting in climate change, sea-level rise and other threats to our very survival. There is urgent need to shift gears, change direction and to focus on various renewable energy sources that can provide us comparable abundance in the long-term rather than the short-term.
Non-renewable abundance is like keeping your money in a private vault, where it earns no interest. The total amount diminishes every time you withdraw some. However large your initial store of money is, you will sooner or later exhaust it and end up with nothing. This is the situation with our non-renewable energy resources such as oil and gas. However abundant they are today, once used, they are gone forever.
Only the energy from sun, perhaps, given its stupendously massive stock of hydrogen, can be considered as good as infinite, even if it will likewise use up its fuel billions of years from now. Paul Hawken has proposed guidelines for managing non-renewables that can be the starting point for an ethical management of non-renewable energy resources.
3. Non-material abundance
This is truly a special type of abundance, because information is not lost whenever it is shared. In fact, sharing information multiplies it, and enables everyone to create even more of it. Because of what economists call the “substitution effect” (consumers tend to shift from higher priced goods to lower-priced ones that can more or less do the same job or fulfill the same need), the information content of other goods will also keep rising as long as using information is cheaper than other approaches. Information abundance can be expected to lead to a cascade of other types of abundance.
The main problem today with information abundance is the mismatch between the two trends: diminishing cost and the promise of universal access on one hand, and, on the other hand, the legal regime of IPRs which threatens information abundance with restrictive laws that unrealistically prohibit sharing, copying and other forms of reproducing information. The second challenge is how to encourage intellectual activity without intellectual property. The success of free/open source software and the extension of this concept to other fields has already shown that monopoly is not the only way, or even the best way, to encourage intellectual activity. More varied ways of rewarding intellectual work need to be evolved.
The term “psychic” is used here not in the ESP sense but in the same psychocultural sense as “psychic rewards” (i.e. non-monetary, non-material), . It refers to certain human feelings and concepts, variously described as “emotional” or even “spiritual”, which are not captured by the term “information”. Psychic abundance covers phenomena which cannot be digitized, copied or reproduced like information. These include love, happiness, companionship, peace, joy, tranquillity, beauty, wisdom, and related concepts. These concepts are often associated with a certain kind of abundance. Many references to abundance on the Internet are of this kind. These references clearly express certain human needs that cannot be met with information, energy or material phenomena but require a special human response that, like the rest, also needs to be studied, learned and mastered.
4. Non-abundance (scarcity)
Included for completeness, this refers to our old friend scarcity. Obviously a spectrum of possibilities lie between absolute abundance and absolute scarcity, and most of what we need and want lie somewhere along this spectrum. Thus a full consideration of what needs to be done to reduce scarcity and enhance abundance requires a study of the causes, conditions and consequences of these complementary phenomena. Economics, which has been studying scarcity from the earliest times, must now expand its coverage to include abundance.
5. Negative abundance
Again, for want of a better term, this refers to an abundance of “bads”, like poisons in the environment, garbage, pollution, greenhouse gases, and various undesirables, which today are often the side-effects of the production of desirables. In some cases, we are so overwhelmed by these “bads” that the entire production process has to be radically overhauled to find ways of producing the goods minus the bads. ”