From one point of view, it is a systemic condition.
It is also a state of being, an experience, a mindset.
It is, thirdly, a goal, an aspiration, a vision.
Mainstream economists tell us that economics is the science of the efficient allocation of scarce resources. They define scarcity as being the condition when potential demand for something exceeds the supply, and since they believe that human wants are insatiable, they believe that virtually all material resources are always scarce. All the rest of neoclassical economics is based on this assumption, including all the equations that are supposed to explain economic reality.
In fact, while greed is certainly part of human nature, we have a choice whether or not we want to create a culture and institutions that promote greed. This is similar to the observation that it is part of human nature to kill other people (people have done this throughout history and in all cultures), but it is our choice whether or not we wish to promote murder and mayhem. It can further be observed that people with excessive greed will never be happy (nothing will ever satisfy them), and such people will furthermore make others unhappy. If we want economics to promote human happiness, we must look for ways to reduce greed and competition, while enhancing contentment and cooperation.
Furthermore, even in cultures where insatiable wants are considered the norm, most people at some point have enough – at least, sufficient so that they prefer to relax rather than to work in order to obtain more. In such conditions, if consumption is to increase, demand has to be stimulated, e.g., by aggressive advertising to make people want things that they did not even dream of wanting before.
But why would it be so important that consumption increases? If people are happy with what they have, what's the problem? It's only a problem in an economy that is geared for exponential growth, that goes into crisis unless it is growing exponentially.
This gets us at the core design flaw of our economy: it is “healthy” only as long as it is growing by a certain number of percentage points every year, regardless of whether resources are being used sustainably and of whether more consumption really meets human needs. Since resources do NOT increase exponentially (most natural resources do not increase at all), and since human needs are NOT infinite, such a growth economy is neither possible nor desirable.
Why is our economy condemned to grow? This has partly to do with the nature of our money, and partly with our systems of property and competition in the market. Our money is mostly created as interest-bearing debt, which means that businesses must grow in order to pay back that money (if one business pays back its debt, this money is immediately lent out to another business which must then grow in order to pay back its debt, so the growth imperative never gets lost). Since the money to repay the interest is not created along with the debt itself, businesses compete against each other for the limited pie – this leads to fierce competition. Competing businesses must either create more demand for their products (making people want things they do not need, creating scarcity, i.e., an excess of demand over supply), or they must cut costs. A primary way to cut costs is to shed labor. Hence, if aggregate demand does not grow, there is high unemployment, leading to depression. Another way to cut costs is to exploit or pollute natural resources without replenishing them, which leads to environmental unsustainability.
The property system is involved here too. If property really belonged to those who “mix their labor” with productive assets (the justification for private property according to John Locke) then agricultural plantations would belong to their workers, migrant laborers would own shares of the farms where they work, factories would be worker cooperatives, and so on. In that case, getting rid of laborers would not be a cost-cutting option for businesses, because their co-owners would be the ones hurt! It is only within a context where most of the workers own neither the productive assets nor the products of their own labor that firing workers is a preferred option for profitability in companies. It is also in this context that increased labor productivity is used to produce more products (whether they are really needed or not) rather than to have more free time and relaxation for everybody.
Meanwhile, nature has no monetary value (the owner of a forest does not need to pay the forest to cut down the trees, but only the laborers), and much of it is unowned (who owns the sky?). This means that natural resources are treated as much more abundant than they really are, leading to their depletion, and hence scarcity.
This system produces scarcity all around, for those who are excluded from having any property (the poor), for those who are forced to compete against each other under the “discipline of the free market” (note the irony here!), and even for those who benefit financially, but always want more and never seem to have enough. Since it is based on ever-increasing production on a limited resource base, it leads to the destruction of the natural resources on which we all depend, leading to extreme scarcity in the future.
Our money, property and competition are all socially constructed and are not ordained by nature or god, which means that we can change them. And this is the aim of an economy of abundance: to develop ways to produce and exchange what we need in such a way that the needs of all people, no matter their backgrounds, can be fulfilled now as well as in the future. Since we depend on and are part of the living world around us, such an economy must also ensure that the needs of other living things, animals and plants and ecosystems, are also met.
You experience abundance when you hug someone you love, when you prepare a dinner with friends and then eat and enjoy the conversation, when you enjoy the beauty of a landscape, when you play with a kid and you both laugh with joy, when you've put the last touch on a work of art and stand back and realize it's done. Abundance is linked with joy, generosity, savoring the moment, opening your heart to the world, trust and confidence.
Abundance is not simply about the amount of material resources; it is about our relationship with material and immaterial resources. An alcoholic will never find that there is an “abundance” of alcohol, but a person who enjoys a glass of wine or of beer with a meal will easily be satisfied with a modest amount of drinks. The culture of consumerism leads us (with more or less success) to be consumaholics who are never satisfied with anything and who therefore never experience abundance.
An emotion that is antithetical to abundance is fear. If we fear that we will have no money after retirement, that we will have to spend enormous amounts of money if we become ill, that ecosystems are going to collapse, that we may be robbed, that riots are going to happen in our neighborhood, that our town will be flooded as a result of changing climate patterns, and so forth, it is almost impossible to experience abundance except as a fleeting exception. Then we must either accumulate wealth in order to assure us against crisis (and it is never possible to know whether what we have accumulated is enough), or we must collaborate with others to avert the threats. If we find no credible way to avert the threats, we feel constant anxiety, but no abundance.
Avoiding to think about the fear-inspiring threats is not abundance; it is merely escapism. If we simply shield ourselves emotionally from the fear, then the fear is still there but in a more insidious way. Abundance is when we actually feel and acknowledge our fears, and then create the condition that we need not fear our future any longer; we can even begin feeling that abundance when we creatively work together towards better living conditions but have not yet achieved them.
To foster abundance in our lives, we must find alternatives to a consumerist mindset. One such alternative is to live life as art.
“Just as dance and painting are forms of art, so is life. Art is self-expression, an exploration of one's inner thoughts and feelings, of one's aspirations and beliefs, ultimately of one's inner unity and one's intimate relations with everything else. Life is also – or should be – an exploration and expression of one's inner thoughts and feelings, aspirations, beliefs, and oneness – a search for integrity.” (Hoeschele 2010: 137).
Life as art involves figuring out what really leads to one's fulfillment, and then doing that – finding a meaningful livelihood that is truly satisfying, seeking to align what one does with what one believes to be right, doing things that one enjoys that also contribute to a larger community. If we really delve into ourselves, we find that we cannot be happy without also contributing to the happiness of other people and of living things more generally. Living art as life skillfully means that we find ways to align our individual self-actualization with the needs of a larger community, and thus contribute to the abundance of all.
The goal of abundance that we pursue at the Commons Abundance Network is that abundance as a systemic condition and abundance as a lived experience mutually support each other – people who experience abundance are motivated to create the institutions that ensure greater abundance for all, and those institutions make it easier for more people to experience abundance and to gather the resources they need to work toward more abundance!
We are aspiring toward a virtuous spiral of positive change, toward a vision of all people having their fundamental needs met, and an abundance of animal and plant species thriving in healthy ecosystems, in a way that is sustainable for countless generations to come. This is not exponential quantitative growth, but rather maturation, like a neural network that gets increasingly integrated as the neurons make more and more connections with each other.
It is our vision that we collectively realize what we need to do and how to do it, and actually get to work and do it!
Brene Brown. July 2013. The Power of Vulnerability.
Post Growth Institute "creating global prosperity without economic growth"
Barnes, Peter. 2001. Who Owns the Sky? Our Common Assets and the Future of Capitalism. Washington, DC: Island Press.
Eisenstein, Charles. 2011. Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition. Berkeley, California: Evolver Editions.
Hoeschele, Wolfgang. 2010. The Economics of Abundance: A Political Economy of Freedom, Equity and Sustainability. Aldershot, UK: Gower.
______. April 2014. Seven Key Elements of an Economy of Abundance. Grassroots Economic Organizing.
Pipher, Mary. 2013. The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture. Penguin.
Verzola, Roberto. 2010. Abundance and the Generative Logic of the Commons. Keynote speech for Stream III: “The Generative Logic of the Commons” of the International Conference on the Commons, Berlin, Germany, Oct. 31 – Nov. 2, 2010.
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