As a human species and culture, we certainly face a great range of challenges and problems these days. Warming planet, chaotic climate, degraded environment, international strife, widening wealth gap, employment insecurity, questionable public and private leadership, cheating and corruption, ever higher cost for basic services, violence, crime, racism, greed, terrorism at home and abroad — all of these are complex, multi-faceted issues that do not appear to have simple solutions. Accordingly, we become embroiled in an endless series of controversies over who or what is at fault, and which regulations, laws, policies, and practices will redress any of these problems.
Despite the above, I have long been intrigued by the (perhaps naïve) fantasy that, somewhere upstream, most human problems are caused, or at least substantially driven by, a common factor. Were this the case, perhaps a relative few adjustments in perception, belief, and behavior could set world society on a more benign course.
I’ve come to believe such a factor exists. It is the illusion of scarcity, following along with the perception that any sort of security or advancement in life can only come at the expense of others – even if to their detriment. I am hard-pressed to think of any sort of social, economic, community, or international problem that is not caused or exacerbated by one party, person, or group seeking to enhance their interests without regard to the costs borne by others.
In this light, the social maladies listed above may merely be symptoms rather than primary “deadly sins”.
History of Scarcity
For most of the history of life – even before the arrival of we humans – the world was commonly a place of scarcity and threat. Disease, droughts, fires, famines, predators, competitors, and a host of other potential calamities — all conspired to make even basic survival frequently precarious. Although we humans were created/evolved to be social creatures, in the extremes of such conditions, even friends and family might be a potential obstacle to one’s own survival. In such a case, ruthless competitiveness might be a survival skill.
Fortunately, the span of human history has been a gradual process of civilization. To a great degree, we have learned to live together, for our mutual benefit. Yet even in the most advanced societies, I suspect that deeply wired into the psyche, a cellular memory of those early times still exists. If at some point the times were to become truly desperate, I wonder how many of us might not have at least some unease about the “loyalty” of those close to us? (Think of a family probate hearing for example.) That this theme occurs regularly in works of fiction (novels, film, television) suggests that such an insecurity is live within many of us.
Scarcity in the Modern World
In earlier times, threats to survival were common, and fears of life-threatening scarcity were frequently justified. Yet thanks to advances in technologies like medicine, sanitation, food production, transportation, communication, and our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in, the vast majority of natural survival threats have been mitigated if not entirely eliminated. Sufficient resources now exist to enable everyone on the planet to enjoy a life of basic comfort, dignity, and opportunity – even with our large population.
Despite the above, a shockingly large percent of the world’s population, perhaps half, struggle and suffer for daily existence while some others enjoy more wealth than could be spent literally in 100 lifetimes. That such a situation exists and persists I believe is due to the earlier mentioned psycho-neurological “wiring” of scarcity. Much basic human behavior is driven by some sense of discomfort or lack: hunger, thirst, chill, loneliness, boredom – even self-esteem – and the subsequent pressure to assuage these. The satisfaction of such needs is so frequent and basic that it often becomes an unthinking reflex — sometimes performed when the need does not actually exist (a major cause of obesity, for example).Moreover, human culture is quite adept and creative about surrounding such needs with a certain amount of ritual, superstition, and other embellishments – restaurants, fashionable clothing, novelty, prestige. These can create an illusion of future satisfaction at some vague level higher than what one currently enjoys. This then can lead to consumption and accumulation beyond true need. Not that the desire for novelty and diversity of experience is inherently wrong – it does add richness to life when done mindfully. The problems arise when consumption, accumulation, and competition for the same become a mindless reflex, done not only in the absence of a need, but even of the ability to enjoy the results. (For example, adding another billion to a ten billion dollar bank account may look great on paper, yet would it materially change the owner’s life?)
Institutionally Driven Scarcity
If the advances of civilization, knowledge, and technology can for the most part render scarcity a thing of the past, are there reasons inherent in the system that cause it to persist?
Most of our cultural and economic institutions were designed and came to be under the earlier historical conditions when scarcity was a much greater problem. Resources had to be managed efficiently by those who had the knowledge, ability, and organizational skills to do so. Those who could not became the laborers who assisted the former in exchange for the necessities of living that could not be self-provided. Everyone enjoyed at least some benefit, but being in the “power” position, the manager types (kings, bankers, business owners, landholders) were able to accumulate and hold more of the scarce, precious, wealth. Various leadership, commercial, and military institutions were eventually formed to support and further the dominance and interests of these structures.
Although today our access to, and our knowledge of, resource use has advanced many orders of magnitude, we continue to operate under a great many institutions with values and dynamics that were devised many centuries ago, under vastly different conditions. Unwittingly, we snatch scarcity out of the jaws of abundance.
Culturally Driven Scarcity
Alongside the above formed a social class hierarchy. Many of those in lower positions of wealth and power would aspire to climb the social ladder. And of course, those at the top who might fear being toppled, may feel pressure to further cement their control of wealth and power. One unfortunate aspect of such control is an incentive to ensure that those beneath are perpetually kept in a state of weakness, fear, and insecurity, such that they are not in a position to organize, resist, or threaten.
Psychically Driven Scarcity – the Grand Illusion
All of the above is fueled by the perception of a zero-sum world of scarcity in which “more for me” has to mean “less (or nothing) for you”. The cellular memory of scarcity and fear of future lack, the fear of missing out, frequently drives accumulation and hoarding far beyond any real need. Sometimes this is entirely an unconscious reflex. Sometimes it is masked with a range of benign-sounding labels: patriotism, security, national defense, winners, progress, victory, self actualization, manifest destiny. Competitiveness for its own sake sometimes becomes a sport or religion — a seemingly noble justification for the neglect of others.
Waking From Illusion
From where we stand today, the notion of a world beyond harmful division, competition, crass commercialism, and extreme inequity may seem like an absurd utopian fantasy. Yet, if as suggested above, many of our major social structures were created for conditions that no longer exist, and that persisting in this model increasingly threatens our own existence, does it not behoove us to consider reinventing some of these in a way more consistent with present realities? Perhaps the unrealistic fantasy is that “business as usual” can be maintained on and on, to the distant future.
At some point in evolutionary history, life moved from competitive, self-interested, single-celled organisms to the internally cooperative multi-cellular organisms of which we are part. The former spend the day seeking nutrients in a swamp. The latter can take a view of our planet from the far corners of the solar system. When we can learn to similarly cooperate as a multi-cellular human society, who knows what will then be achievable?