Sharing the surplus vs. engineered scarcity

It’s not a mistake or an accident that abundance is destroyed. Profit-oriented institutions depend on scarcity, so when it doesn’t come about naturally, they manufacture it … Waste is not a problem of lack of coordination. In fact, it’s not a problem at all for the people who control and operate large businesses – it’s a deliberately constructed situation.

Interesting meditation on the war of abundance against artificial scarcity, from Marina Gorbis:

“We have excess of stuff, talent, ideas, information—in our homes , in our communities, and in our organizations. We are over-producing and under-utilizing resources all over the place.

Witness the recent example of clothing retailers like H&M deliberately mutilating and tossing unsold clothes in the trash. Many experts in retail concede that the practice is not uncommon—for some unfathomable “economic” reason it makes more sense to destroy clothes than to release them into a local community. The situation is even worse when it comes to food. We over-produce and waste a lot of it. According to the USDA, just over a quarter of America’s food — about 25.9 million tons — gets thrown into the garbage can every year. University of Arizona estimates that the number is closer to 50 percent. The country’s supermarkets, restaurants and convenience stores alone throw out 27 million tons between them every year (representing $30 billion of wasted food). This is why the U.N. World Food Program says the total food surplus of the U.S. alone could satisfy “every empty stomach” in Africa. How about empty stomachs in our own communities?

The list goes on an on. We have surplus of space—many commercial buildings, schools, corporate and government spaces are underutilized, while many small organizations and individuals are struggling to find spaces for their work. We also have excess of talent—musicians, artists, designers, educated unemployed people, young and old—needing audiences, venues to work in, or contribute ideas to. Many unemployed or underemployed people have excess of time, excess of knowledge, excess of skills. We have excess of empty seats in our cars and not enough public transport to help people get around. I bet we even have medical doctors who are willing to treat people in need for free. This is what many doctors are doing in Haiti right now; this is what many of them do informally among their family and friends.

Just like the global level hunger is largely a problem of distribution rather than production (we currently have enough food available to feed the world’s population), the problem of economic and psychological malaise many of our communities are experiencing may be a problem of distribution rather than supply. If we pulled together available resources at the local level, particularly leveraging surplus currently available within our organizations, we could do a lot to improve our local economies. We can also improve psychological well being in our communities by turning up levels of giving and by increasing connectedness within our communities.”

Zikzak gives added details about the organized waste that rules our current system, i.e. artificial scarcity is not a bug, but a feature:


“It’s not a mistake or an accident that abundance is destroyed. Profit-oriented institutions depend on scarcity, so when it doesn’t come about naturally, they manufacture it.

Most excess food, clothing and other valuable goods don’t just “spoil”. They’re actively destroyed by producers or retailers, because putting them to useful purpose by making them available to people would undercut the scarcity on which the producers and retailers depend to turn a profit.

It’s a fundamental contradiction of late-stage capitalism. The market has succeeded in creating huge overabundance such that everyone could have as much as they need, but this abundance undermines the success of key players in the market. So they have to do additional work just to re-create an artificial scarcity in order to continue profiting from an outdated business model.”

” I’m fairly experienced at sifting the waste flow of corporate America, and I’ve been a part of many attempts to divert the useful things in that waste towards useful ends like homeless shelters or free food programs. Sometimes this works, but more often than not, these arrangements result in hostility from retailers and distributors.

I’m talking about arrangements as simple as “hey, when you throw all that stuff away, we’ll come by and pick it up to give to the needy, ok?” No moving, storing, sorting, or distribution required on the part of the company – as you suggested, all of that is provided by volunteers. Really, all that’s required is that they keep doing what they always do and leave us alone when we come to pick up their excess. They could even get a tax-writeoff for the “donation”.

Instead, we get companies hiring security guards specifically to thwart the reclaiming of excess goods. I’m talking partly about dumpster divers, but also of attempts by employees to divert waste to food banks or charities before they end up in the dumpster. There’s an entire security structure that’s devoted to ensuring that excess goods are destroyed. I know people who work in retail who are required to load all the excess, returns, and “imperfect” goods into a trash compacter and then crush them with the manager watching, lest someone end up getting value from some bit of that excess.

This kind of waste is not a problem of lack of coordination. In fact, it’s not a problem at all for the people who control and operate large businesses – it’s a deliberately constructed situation. Unfortunately, it will take a lot more than better systems of coordination to change this dynamic. It will take a shift in how we relate to our economy and what we expect it to do for us.”

2 Comments Sharing the surplus vs. engineered scarcity

  1. AvatarZbigniew Lukasiak

    So why companies do that? Ask them and they’ll answer that giving out stuff devalues the products they are selling – and this is true. People value things that are scarce (this is explained by the mimetic desire theory – but I think it is also very well understood intuitively), not because of their objective nature – but because other people cannot have them. Taking something that is not much valued and turning it into something valued by other people and then selling it to them is the core of our system, can that be changed? The communism experiment, that I experienced personally, showed that it will not be easy.

  2. AvatarZbigniew Lukasiak

    Rephrasing it differently – what people want is rare things and companies provide them with these rare things, even if they need to destroy some part of similar things to make them rare enough. Can we have an economic system that would not produce what people want but something that would be more valuable in some other abstract way and not be evil?

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