Scarcity mindset

Finding abundance by embracing unknowingness


For us, the denizens of this world of desire, it is no longer a question of episodic insufficiency; out of our affluence we have created a social world of scarcity
—Nicholas Xenos, Scarcity and Modernity (New York, 1989)

The word scarcity is derived from the Old Northern French word escarceté, meaning scanty and was used to indicate an insufficiency of goods and supplies. According to the economic historian Nicholas Xenos, it was in the fifteenth century that the word took on the more specific meaning of denoting an insufficiency or dearth of basic necessities. This particular usage likely passed into the vernacular as a direct outcome of the famines and plages that devastated lands periodically. The periods of deficit and frugality were intermittent and short-lived, so scarcity was colocated with "periods of" , or variations to that effect. However, the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century as well as an abundance of new and previously limited goods brought in by trade meant that the burgeoning middle class could secure for themselves status and prestige at a price. Now everything could be commoditised—from the trinkets and trifles on our coffee tables to our genetic traits, skills, and abilities. The criteria that bestows value was continually changing and its flow subtly manipulated so as to ensure a constant "elasticity of demand". In part, this conflating of needs with desires is fuelled by evolution, which has made us social animals and compels us to seek belonging in ever wider circles. Power and prestige are attractors because they are attractive and desirable to those who aspire to the same. The drive to acquire gives the mind a tangible avenue to autonomy in the caprice of the vast integer of the universe. We are lured in by the stable and reliable categories of things and resources instead of the unknowingness of a world that is dynamic and continuous. Within this world of arbitrarily fabricated needs, we can make up the rules for how to distribute these resources and who has the right to participate and profit in their transaction. Those who are fortunate to win by the arbitrary and rigid rules that are set up have a stake in maintaining the status quo. The consequence of material needs and desires being conflated with the genuine needs of survival is that they have become deeply entrenched within structures of meaning. Recognition, prestige, and status symbols are so interwoven with the complex fabric of our being that we cannot really separate our needs and desires, either conceptually or morally. But, although it is true that we live in a world of limited resources, the basic necessities of life—food, shelter, and clothing—are not scarce. And neither are the socially constructed needs of love, caring, confidence, respectability, intimacy, sexual fulfilment and so on. If we could only turn around and examine these faux needs, we might see them for what they are—hollow categories of nothingness that trap us in modes of fear and impoverishment and prevent us from experiencing the unknowingness of a world that is dynamic and continuous.

The means of satisfying our needs are not scarce, yet today we live in a world where we are led to believe that everything we need is scarce. An abnormal amount of fear is induced when we transmute characteristics that are particular to certain systems to the universe as a whole. Take entropy for example. The term was originally meant to describe the transfer of energy in micro systems that exist within a closed loop. But when the German mathematician and physicist Rudolph Clausius formulated the theory of thermodynamics, he postulated in his second law that all entities in nature undergo transformation "without compensation" and from this he generalised that "the universe must consequently approach incessantly a limiting condition." Soon social philosophers had adopted and extended the concept to include communities or other temporal systems characterised by patterns of behaviour. It was extended and generalised to include the entire universe, the degradation spreading outwards, from our ageing bodies, to our society, to our planet itself and the universe at large. And since all systems break down eventually there is a constant need to improve and fix them by involving more people. So socially and economically, the idea of entropy keeps the labour and technology markets turning. After all, there is more opportunity for involvement in a system that degrade over time, than in one that repairs itself or gets better. This allows us to feel some measure of control over the systems and institutions in our lives, and injects a measure of predictability in an uncertain world. This idea of a degenerating universe is as ancient as civilisation itself. Plato believed in a cycle of degeneration where the world descends from a pinnacular utopia to rapid degradation as time progresses. In the Reign of Cronos myth in the Statesman, a Golden Age existed in which Cronos himself ruled over the world (The origin of this myth can be traced back to Hesiod's Works and Days). This Great Year, roughly equivalent to 36,000 regular years, comprises of a period of tranquility and growth, corresponding to spring and summer, and a nether period of degradation and decay, corresponding to autumn and winter. This age coincided with the birth of man and during that time neither the concepts of property or ownership existed, and ergo the world knew neither social conflict nor war. This age is followed by the age of Zeus—our current age. This is the age in which mankind has been abandoned by the Gods and left to its own devices so that greed and corruption reign supreme. But we are eventually to be redeemed—in Plato's story of the Statesman, Plato suggests that when mankind has reached its lowest point of complete corruption, the Gods will once again descend upon the earth and take charge, setting us back on a halcyon course. Sound familiar?

The object which at first appears to be at hand flees more quickly than it can be pursued. When one believes that one has reached it, it transforms and reveals itself in the distance ahead of us. No longer seeing the country we have already crossed, we count it for nothing; what remains to cross ceaselessly grows and extends. Thus one exhausts oneself without getting to the end, and the more one gains on enjoyment, the further happiness gets from us.
—Jean-Jacques Rousseau

This is a world that encourages us to use any means necessary to succeed, get ahead, make money. The people who rapaciously pursue such values try to dress them up so that they sound better, but this is exactly what they are, and when they do realise the folly of such pursuits, it is usually too late. So what then is the salve to this existential angst? James Gleich says this in his book The Information: "Not only do living things lessen the disorder in their environments; they are in themselves, their skeletons and their flesh, vesicles and membranes, shells and carapaces, leaves and blossoms, circulatory systems and metabolic pathways-miracles of patterns and structure. It sometimes seems as if curbing entropy is our quixotic purpose in the universe." The human constitution seems predisposed towards attending to only contrasts, differences, deficiencies, and other forms of disorder. No doubt, this predilection is hard-wired into us by a survival instinct. In the process we fail to notice or we take for granted the perfectly-ordered processes continuously taking place around us, that have been going on for a thousand million years, and are occurring in a myriad different ways at this very moment within your body and mine. These continuous processes take place with such remarkable precision that the probability of something going wrong is incredibly minute. It is this perfection that has prolonged life for these thousand million years and continues to do so with most supreme efficiency, making subtle modifications along the way so that living systems don't merely exist but are given more and more facility to be more and do more. Life seems to be continuously developing, mutating, and evolving, and especially in man it would seem to be creating without boundary. We need to pay closer attention to this marvellous foundation on which all life and all change rests. There is an abundance in just being in the here and now, and you can shape you present moment by choosing what you focus on. So really examine your desires; see what's at the back of them, and you will realise that you can usually get what you want without compromising, whether it be love, or confidence, or security, or self-esteem, or any of the things we really value in life.