An introduction to the economics of abundance (1): the supply side

To even acknowledge at all the existence of abundance is a huge conceptual leap for many economists, whose fundamental assumptions are based on scarcity. Some economists even say that abun-dant goods cease to be interesting because the problem of scarcity has been solved. But if abundance solves the problem of scarcity, shouldn’t economists devote as much time to the solution as to the problem itself? The answer should be obvious. Indeed, the study of abundance should be a major field of study.

Roberto Verzola offers us a must-read typology of abundant goods:

He helps us distinguish:

* Multiplicative Abundance
* Reproductive Abundance
* Massive Abundance
* Psychic Abundance
* Derivative Abundance
* Pseudo Abundance

Multiplicative Abundance

Roberto Verzola:

“We will call the archetype of abundance that is created when the cost of reproducing the resource approaches zero, multiplicative abundance. Goods belonging to this archetype are abundant because the means for making multiple identical copies have become so accessible and the cost of doing so has become so low, that they are easily reproduced essentially for free. This dynamic is fast becoming the driving force of 21st century economies.

To even acknowledge at all the existence of abun-dance is a huge conceptual leap for many econo-mists, whose fundamental assumptions are based on scarcity. Some economists even say that abundant goods cease to be interesting because the problem of scarcity has been solved. But if abun-dance solves the problem of scarcity, shouldn’t economists devote as much time to the solution as to the problem itself? The answer should be obvious. Indeed, the study of abundance should be a major field of study, not only for economists but also for other social scientists and for physical scientists as well.”

Reproductive Abundance

“While the abundance of ideas and knowledge in the information sector comes from the intrinsic human urge to communicate and to share, in agriculture and nature it comes from the intrinsic ability – instinctive urge, in fact – of living organisms to reproduce themselves. All living organisms reproduce their own kind and are therefore a source of biological abundance. Their biological design enables most of these organisms to tap solar energy directly through photosynthesis, or indirectly by feeding on organisms that have stored this energy in their bodies. As living organisms increase their numbers, they also organize themselves into a food web of producers and consumers – vegetarians, omnivores, carnivores, predators, decomposers, and various other ecological players, creating a self-maintaining ecological system that from a human perspective can last essentially indefinitely. A society that learns how to tap these ecological systems as natural capital can generate with minimal effort unending flows of natural income for meeting the needs of that society’s members. This abundance archetype may be called the reproductive archetype.

Reproductive abundance is essentially a gift of nature for Homo sapiens. We simply need to learn how this abundance has come about, to preserve and enhance the biological and ecological processes that lead to this abundance, and to protect these processes from threats that can lead to disruption or failure.

Left to their own, forests, grasslands, soils of all kinds, ponds, rivers, lakes, bays, seas, oceans, and waters of all kinds will teem with life, almost every ecological niche occupied by one or more species. By their very nature, as long as the right conditions exist for the reproductive processes to occur, ecological systems of interacting biological webs of organisms will provide us a timeless source of abundance. Properly tapped, this abundance of life can further lead to cascades of abundance, promising a cornucopia of agricultural, biological, natural and ecological goods and services for human societies. The basic management approach to this archetype is to recognize the many natural incomes possible from one source, to withdraw these as needed while ensuring that the natural capital is preserved and enhanced, so that the resource can provide human societies perpetual income streams. This requires intimate knowledge and deep understanding of biological, ecological and other natural processes.

We have now identified two abundance archetypes, the Multiplicative Abundance of information goods and the reproductive abundance of living organisms. Information is a non-material good. Organisms are made of living matter.

Non-living matter is the basis of two more archetypes.”

Massive Abundance

“The two additional archetypes are based on the massive bulk of certain elements and compounds in nature. Air is available to all. Water too, with exceptions. The abundance of sand promises a practically inexhaustible source of silicon, which provides the elemental basis for the hardware infrastructure of the information economy as well as future solar energy economies. The hydrogen in the sun provides the Earth with abundant renewable solar energy that creates its own cascades of abundance. It is solar energy that drives all living systems, the water cycle, the global circulation of air. Properly tapped, it will provide humanity with inexhaustible sources of solar, wind, water and ocean energy that can make dirtier non-renewable sources like fossil and radioactive fuels unnecessary. The third and fourth archetypes are both archetypes of massive abundance of natural elements and compounds found on Earth and elsewhere, another gift of nature, by their sheer bulk, to Homo sapiens.

We use the substances belonging to the massive-persistent abundance archetype for their material content – air, water, sand, minerals, etc., as raw material for the finished products we make. We use the other substances belonging to the massive-dissipative archetype for their energy content – coal, oil, natural gas, and so on.

Because abundance based on persistent mass consists of matter, and matter is never really destroyed, such abundance persists, once it is made available. All the metals dug out of the earth since Homo sapiens started using iron, copper, bronze, tin, aluminum, etc. are still above ground, some-where – in dumps, basements and cellars, and various nooks and corner of human dwellings, whether in use and abandoned. The persistent type undergo very little chemical transformation during their use. Most of the different metals dug up as ore, processed, and subsequently incorporated into a finished product, possibly ending up as waste, still exist as metal today, slowly oxidizing somewhere. Their persistence allows them to be reused or recycled over and over again, with little additional chemical processing.

The key towards appropriate management of this archetype is a better system of recovering and recycling the resource, to enhance the persistence of these abundant goods for their human users.

Some of the other raw materials are so transformed after use that these are essentially one-time use materials. (Other uses, of course, may be found for the transformed by-products, like using waste heat from cooling condensers for space heating.) These include all those we use for their energy content. We can call them massive-dissipative resources because they are dissipated after use. They are the depletable, exhaustible resources. While we may start with an abundance by virtue of their bulk, the use of the resource transforms and depletes it. Once used, that’s it. Given the known reserves and current rates of consumption, for instance, the world’s oil reserves are at best good only for a few more human generations. Then they will be gone. Other non-renewable energy resources also fall under this archetype.

The principal management approach for this archetype should be conservation, to leave as much of the resource to future generations, who may dis-cover much better and more efficient ways of put-ting these non-renewable resources to good use.”

Psychic Abundance

“Human needs exist which cannot be met by material, information, or energy goods or services. Beyond the minimum biological requirements of food, water and protection from the elements, for instance, health is as much a matter of happiness, contentment and a sense of community and belonging. It is as much a mental as a physical state. Those who live in voluntary simplicity or even in obvious material lack may still enjoy a sense of abundance that comes from states of emotion and thought that may be variously called psychological, emotional or spiritual.”

Derivative Abundance

“These types of abundance are derived from the other archetypes. Thus they may take on some of the features of their source, but they may also pose unique features of their own. Wind power, for instance, is a derivative of solar power, with solar heat turning the earth’s atmosphere into a heat engine that generates air movements which can then be tapped for energy generation. Part of this heat engine drives the hydrological cycle, from which comes another derivative source of abundance, the power of flowing/falling water. When we learn to build on the foundations of existing abundant resources to create cascades of new abundant phenomena, we will see more new types of derivative abundance.”

Pseudo Abundance

“A phenomenon sometimes presents itself as a case of abundance. We may later find out that it comes attached with a darker side of ills and bads. Even worse, the „abundance may in reality be a poisoned pill of ills and bads that are actually meant to undermine real abundance and create artificial scarcity, but are sold as a good or service that claims to benefit an unsuspecting public.

It may take discernment and time to determine which is which. Who would have thought that farmers will accept – not to mention pay for – powerful poisons into their soils? That mothers would deny their babies the nourishing breast milk nature has freely provided for them, and prefer instead to buy troublesome antibiotic- and hormone-laden formula milk? Have we taken into account the environmental and health costs involved in creating the new ICT infrastructure? Few people today look at the bads associated with ICTs, their production, use, and disposal. The study of abundance must make these costs visible, so that they can be taken into account whenever the cost of digital reproduction is considered, and so that the bads associated with ICTs can also eliminated over time.

We need to be vigilant about these types of „abundance, so we can reject and eliminate them. Unfortunately, our production methods often generate them as a by-product of production. Responding to this negative „abundance? involves avoiding being locked into production methods that rely for raw materials on toxic and non-biodegradable sub-stances or which create them as by-products or as the main product itself, and shifting to technologies of clean production. The model of clean production is the ecological model of food webs, which finds use for every by-product and creates closed production loops.”


* 21st-Century Political Economies: Beyond Information Abundance. by Roberto Verzola. International Review of Information Ethics Vol. 11 (10/2009)

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