The war against abundance in the physical world (2): towards policies for abundance

We continue the presentation of the very important essay by Robert Verzola.

This time, excerpts of what he has to say about a positive policy geared towards producing positive feedback loops of abundance.

Roberto Verzola:

1. Marshalling the abundance of nature

“Creating abundance is a matter of reproducing a good over and over again, until more than enough is available for everyone’s need or even for everyone’s capacity to consume.

In nature, the tendency towards bountiful abundance is obvious, especially where seasonal variations highlight the contrast between abundance and scarcity. Prehistoric artefacts of fertility goddesses as well as harvest festivals and rituals still practiced today show the extent abundance has been recognized and sought.

Abundance is inherent in the reproductive processes of life. Natural abundance is simply Life reasserting itself through the endless cycle of reproduction by every life form of their own kind. This is the engine of abundance in nature and in agriculture. The process is self limiting too. As every available ecological niche is filled up, species gradually form a food web and settle into a dynamic balance, with closed material cycles ensuring that the balance is maintained. This enables the processes of abundance to continue indefinitely.

Sharing information does not diminish or deplete but rather multiplies and enriches it. Shared information begets more information. The engine of information abundance is the inherent human desire to communicate, to seek information and knowledge, and to share them, an urge that gets more fully expressed as the cost of sharing goes down. The cost of reproducing electronic signals is now approaching zero. With digital technology, books, artworks, music and video can now be stored in the same format as software and databases: as a long string of binary values. From these ones and zeroes, with the right equipment and algorithm, an exact copy of the digital original or a faithful copy of the analog original, can be reconstructed. Once stored digitally and made available in easily searchable form on a global network, an unlimited number of users may now get any number of exact copies of the work. Who cannot recognize the abundance of human knowledge, experience and creative work made possible by the Internet? As more and more people discover its possibilities for sharing freely, the whole range of human skills, thought and feeling is now being made available through this medium.

From an information perspective, abundance in nature and in agriculture is, in a way, driven by the inherent program within genetic information to reproduce itself. This abundance, however, must eventually express itself in terms of biomass and is therefore constrained by material limits. Information abundance, on the other hand, is of the non material variety. Thus information goods offer the promise of practically unlimited abundance, constrained mainly by the limits of human creativity, the storage capacity of media, and the availability of electricity to power servers on the Internet twenty four hours a day.

The driving forces behind abundance in the agriculture and information sectors have been identified.

In agriculture, it is the inherent urge in every life form to reproduce its own kind, fuelled by the practically limitless energy from the sun. In the information sector, it is the inherent urge in every human being to communicate with others, share knowledge and information with them, and produce knowledge together, given full expression by the near zero cost of sharing made possible with digital electronic technology.

Abundance helps to meet human needs and wants and should therefore be welcomed.

2. What is the driving force behind antiabundance?

The answer should be clear by now. Attacks against abundance have been mostly initiated by business firms or by governments. Where governments undertook these measures, they have done so at the instance of some business firms, which in the final analysis reaped the benefits of the government measures.

Looking more closely at the logic of business firms, it is obvious that the immediate effect of restricting abundance is to reduce supply and increase overall demand. These in turn raise prices or keep their levels high. If the costs of production change little or not at all and prices go up, then profits go up. This is the logic behind corporate efforts to develop technologies and influence State policies that give them closer control over the abundance and scarcity of goods: to create the best conditions for maximizing profits. Indeed, they may maximize profits, but may not necessarily be the best way to encourage creativity. Free/open source software and farmer bred varieties show that creativity can continue to flourish even without the attraction of monopoly earnings.

Shouldn’t this selfish end give way to higher societal goals? The economist’s answer is that society’s higher goals are indeed served when everyone pursues their own self interest in free competition with others. In fact, economists argue, the competitive pursuit of individual gain accomplishes overall social goals better, even if this “was no part of his intention,” than when individuals consciously try to advance society’s higher goals. This idea that individual pursuit of self interest not only leads to but is actually the best path towards overall social good became the moral basis for capitalist society. This was the programmed into business firms as an “urge” to maximize gain, and they do so by controlling abundance and scarcity in their favor. This is the driving force behind anti abundance. Because human beings were a complex bundle of urges, emotions and motivations who often acted irrationally (i.e., regardless of self interest) from an economist’s perpective, corporations became the ideal economic agents, pursuing nothing but maximum gain for themselves based on the economic theory of laissez faire capitalism.

They are therefore driven to undermine abundance and create artificial scarcity as an unintended but logical consequence of their internal programming, creating a modern class of rentiers who accumulate wealth by charging fees for access to the resources they control.

3. Constructing a theory of abundance

Economics has always assumed a condition of scarcity and defined its role as the efficient allocation of scarce resources relative to unlimited human wants. Nowhere does abundance figure in the definition or goals of economics.

Practically all economic textbooks are premised on scarcity. Check their index: “scarcity” would be found in the early pages – the first chapter, probably; “abundance” would be missing, creating a blind spot among economists. Samuelson and Nordhaus write in page 2 of their textbook: “At the core, [economics] is devoted to understanding how society allocates its scare resources. Along the way to studying the implications of scarcity, economics tries to figure out the 1001 puzzles of everyday life.”30 Some books might refer to “overproduction”, suggesting an anomaly to be avoided or corrected. Misunderstanding abundance as overproduction logically leads to counterproductive measures restricting abundance, a misapplication of concepts developed under assumptions of scarcity.

Yet, once we open our minds, we should see abundance all around us. Solar energy has been with us from the beginning. So have clean air and water, plants and animals, soil life, forests, and the astounding variety of life on Earth, now threatened. Since the Internet emerged, we have also seen an extraordinary abundance of information and knowledge and no lack of people willing to share them freely. Just look at the Web, Yahoo!, Google, Wikipedia, YouTube and all the lesser known but incredibly useful efforts to make information and knowledge freely available on the Internet. New technologies promise even more abundance: in bandwidth through fiber optics, in air time through spread spectrum technology, and in storage through new media. Clearly, abundance is as much a feature of the real world as scarcity. To understand this blind spot of economics and harness it fully for the human good, we need to construct theories of abundance to complement the theories of scarcity that dominate economics today. In fact, economists who talk of “relative scarcity” only need a minor leap of logic to recognize “relative abundance”. After all, a glass that is half empty is also halffull. Consider the variations in abundance. It can be precarious (collapse imminent), temporary (lasting less than a lifetime), short term (a few lifetimes), medium term (many lifetimes) or long term (longer than human existence). It can be relative (enjoyed by a limited number), local (confined to a specific area) or absolute (accessible to all). The abundance of solar energy and other energy forms associated with it, such as hydro, wind and wave energy, is obviously long term. Solar energy is universal, while hydro, wind and wave energy are more local. Coal’s abundance is medium term, if the estimates are correct that the world’s reserves may last for several hundred years more (i.e., many human generations). Oil, which is perhaps good for another generation or two at current extraction rates, is short term.

In addition, fossil fuel abundance is relative because it is not accessible to all, but only to large firms with enough financial, technical and human resources. While absolute, universal abundance can have free/open access, others may need some form of management. Local resources may need to restrict or even exclude outsiders. Extraction rates may need to be regulated. Moratoriums may even have to be imposed on threatened resources.

4. The Abundance Management Regime

The ultimate goal of any management regime should be to ensure against any failure of abundance.

The following specific goals are suggested:

1. Make the resource accessible to a greater number of people – ideally, to all.

This is merely a restatement of the goal of social justice. Potable water, for instance, is so important to human survival that this goal should be paramount for this resource, abundant or not. For water – and for land, as well – Gandhi’s observation rings true:

“There is enough in the world for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.”

These resources can become abundant for all or scarce for many, depending on how they are managed. In a country like the Philippines, land seems scarce to the millions who do not own a home lot because the ownership structure allows a few to own thousands of hectares of land. Agrarian reform is, in effect, an effort to keep land abundant for every rural household that is willing to farm land. Some have also argued that family size farms can be as productive and efficient, if not more, than huge, corporate held tracts.

2. Make sure the resource will last for generations, preferably indefinitely.

This means turning limited, temporary or short term abundance into long term abundance. This is also a restatement of the goal of sustainability. Rain forests, for instance, have been providing countless generations of indigenous tribes everything they needed for survival. At current rates of depletion, however, our generation has turned rain forests into a short term or temporary resource that will be gone in a few generations, if not within our generation. Economists should be familiar with the difference between income and capital, natural resource stocks and flows. In the rain forest case, ensuring long term abundance means limiting the consumption of forest products to the natural income we get out of the forest, and refraining from eating into the capital stock. Strategies for managing nonrenewable resources, or information resources, would of course be different.

3. Build a cascade of abundance.

Abundance in one sector (or of one good) can help create abundance in another sector (or of another good). The food chain is a good example of abundance at one level (solar energy) supporting abundance at the next level (plants) which supports abundance at a higher level (herbivores), etc. By building linkages among farm components, permaculture32 teaches how one type of abundance can be made to support another through conscious design. A similar cascade occurs on the Internet, which supports the Web, which in turn supports search engines and new applications like wikis and blogs, one abundance building on another. The sun is a flexible energy source that can provide, through collectors and concentrators, a wide range of temperatures to match various enduses.

By tapping it more, industry can harness potentially huge amounts of energy for various productive activities, opening up possibilities for creating abundance in many other sectors. Photovoltaic (PV) cells made from silica, also an abundant resource, can transform sunlight into cheap electricity for industrial, commercial and home use. This can make viable the electrolytic extraction from water, another abundant resource, of hydrogen and oxygen. These can be stored and later used in fuel cells, holding the promise of a pollution free hydrogen based economy.

Most computer equipment, which are silicon based like PV cells, have either been halving in price or doubling in capacity every few years or so. LCD projectors now sell for a fifth of their price ten years ago. If PV prices follow suit, perhaps due again to China’s entry, we can look forward to a cascade of solar based abundance in the future.

Eventually we should be able to recognize conditions that lead to abundance and then learn how to create more abundance. We already have a rough idea how abundance happens in nature, in agriculture and in the information sector. We simply need to nurture the forces that generate such abundance. One challenge is how to emulate ecological processes such as the cyclic loops of nature to create a similar material abundance in the industrial sector, without disrupting natural cycles

4. Develop an ethic that nurtures abundance.

To manage abundance well, its community of beneficiaries must adopt a behavioral ruleset and the corresponding enforcement mechanisms. It is desirable to eventually turn this ruleset into a mindset, similar to Leopold’s land ethic33 and Postel’s water ethic, that makes the other goals of social justice, sustainability, cascading abundance, and dynamic balance second nature to all.

5. Attain dynamic balance.

In a finite world, material abundance cannot grow indefinitely. Nature shows us how abundance can occur indefinitely through a dynamic balance (i.e., harmony) of abundant elements connected in closed material cycles. Citing permaculture again as example, a similar balance can be attained in a farm by modelling it after long lived self regenerating ecological systems to design what are, in effect, forests or ponds of food and cash crops. After we learn to design similar closed loops in industry, we can bring this sector back into harmony with the rest of the living world.

5. Abundance creates commons

If we review history, and perhaps prehistory as well, we would see that abundance has often led to the creation of commons. In communities that respond to abundance by treating it as a common pool resource, community members tend to act cooperatively to manage the commons so that the goals of social justice and sustainability are met and the risk of failure in abundance is minimized.

Commons management involves not only economic rules but also cultural and political factors such as conscious community decisions, appeals to the common good, and the values of sharing, cooperation, altruism and community spirit. It often relies not only on prices but also on restrictions, prohibitions and taboos. Ancient tribes and other traditional societies have evolved complex social norms of behavior and hierarchies of communal use and access rights that have served them well in managing abundance and the commons for many generations. Similar norms have likewise evolved among successful modern commons such as free/open source software and the Wikipedia.

Their institutions and methods for governing the commons have proved even more useful for threatened resources as well as resources that have actually become scarce, by helping meet goals of social justice and sustainability. In a number of instances, fishing grounds and forest reserves have been nursed back to abundance, thanks to the proper management of these commons.”

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