A Tale of Two Memes Part 1 (of 2):
Abundance vs. Overpopulation (Scarcity)

by C.A. L'Hirondelle, May 16, 201

"Many changes will be necessary as we move from
an economy of scarcity
to an economy of abundance."

-- Robert Theobald, The Challenge of Abundance, 1961


"The fact is that most men
are still geared psychologically to the economic facts
of scarcity,
when the industrial world
is in the process of entering
a new era of economic abundance."

--Eric Fromm, The Psychological Aspects of the Guaranteed Income, The Guaranteed Income,
edited by Robert Theobald, 1967



In 1961 Robert Theobald was writing about "the challenge of abundance"; he did not mean extravagant Western world wastefulness, but simply that everyone could have a "reasonable standard of living".

In 1964 Theobald signed The Triple Revolution memo in favor of income distribution along with several other forward-thinkers. By 1967 U.S. President Lyndon Johnson created a National Commission on Guaranteed Incomes. In Canada it was thought that implementation of a guaranteed income was immanent.

Abundance was seen as a challenge because higher productivity from mechanized labor meant less need for human labor. The drive for productive efficiency and to increase profits through automation paradoxically meant there would be fewer consumers to buy all those products. Implementing a guaranteed income was seen as way to solve this paradox.

The wave of momentum for Guaranteed Annual Income grew to the point where both Nixon and Martin Luther King Jr. —and many others— advocated GAI or a Negative Income Tax (NIT).


However another meme, one that had been popularized over a century prior by Thomas Malthus and his Essay on Population (1798), was rising again.

Malthus had written "evil seems to be necessary to create exertion" because men are "inert, sluggish, and averse from labour, unless compelled by necessity." Letting poor people die (including children), became a moral act. His notion that 'if you feed them you breed them' led to brutal English poor laws.


In addition to rebutting William Godwin, Malthus also wrote his poisonous tract to oppose the abundance and equality philosophy of Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, a French mathematician, anti-slavery, rights-of-women advocate and writer of A Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind.  

Condorcet had been part of the French Revolution, but had to flee for his life after taking a stand opposing the death penalty. He met a tragic end shortly after writing his Sketch for Progress.

In 1879 Henry George in Progress and Poverty wrote that the purpose of Malthus' Essay on Population was to justify existing inequality and that "everywhere the vice and misery attributed to overpopulation can be traced to the warfare, tyranny, and oppression which prevent knowledge from being utilized and deny the security essential to production."

Condorcet and his liberating ideas disappeared from the public memory but the Malthus meme is the undead zombie corpse that just won't go away and has been lurching around frightening everyone into accepting undead and deadly social policies ever since.


In the late 1940s and early 1950s the term 'population bomb' began being tossed about internationally, and in the U.S. a million and a half copies of TO Greissimer's Population Bomb pamphlet were distributed. In 1968 Paul Ehrlich published his "The Population Bomb" book—described as the most popular environmental book ever published.

Thus the abundance meme was exploded by the population bomb scare—the specter of overpopulation deliberately conjures up fear—fear of poor people, racist fears and fears of resource scarcity.

(It is worth noting that the 20th Century overpopulation hype emerged at the same time automation and mechanization were increasing output and capacity.)

This created pivotal political reverberations and was one reason why the movement for a guaranteed income stalled. Overpopulation fear-mongering grabbed control of the public imagination and filled it full of nightmares that fanned the flames of some very inhuman sentiments which spilled over into the creation of those inhuman (undead) social and economic policies.

So just as it had with Condorcet, the hammer came down again on a positive vision for humanity and on the meme of abundance and the logical social policy: income distribution.


The overpopulation/scarcity message was adopted even by many who were the target of Malthusian ideas. Robert Tressell described this in his 1914 novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists written from his first-hand conversations within the laboring-classes. In the early part of the novel a group of impoverished manual workers discussed the causes of poverty. Overpopulation was seen as a main reason with one of the characters remarking: " 'The greatest cause of poverty is hover-population' "

Today, rather than calling the 'economically squeezed' who turn against themselves and those in their social group "Ragged Trousered Philanthropists" this phenomenon is described as 'lateral violence' or 'internalized oppression'. It is not uncommon to hear people on benefits call other benefit-receivers undeserving, cheaters or that they should willingly take their share of cuts. Conversely we would not hear bank CEOs bashing other bank CEOs saying they need to take pay cuts and are a bunch of frauds. Lateral violence can happen when people feel powerless—lashing sideways at those with less power is easier than lashing up at powerful, and often invisible, perpetrators of systemic abuse. Ultimately, it will become obvious to all that this is a lose/lose strategy.


Now in the early 21st Century, the economy is at another fork in the road. This time it is not just mechanization and automation, but digitization. And digital products—unlike any other product before them—are infinite products.

It is abundance on steroids, especially when we add in developments such as Makerbots, 3D printers, self-serve kiosks, and RFID tags the latter of which could eliminate millions of retail sector jobs. This could be a perfect storm to free humans from drudgery, but only if we can let go of the Malthus zombie corpse and go for a universal income benefit to make a peaceful transition to a livable economy.


Just the 60s had forward thinking problem-solvers like Theobald and Martin Luther King Jr., today there is a diverse legion of people around the world, many who are anonymous, talking about the need for universal income distribution to rationalize an economy that is clearly in transition.

Swedish Pirate Party founder Rick Falkvinge in his article on The Swarm Economy: "The job market is never going back to lifetime employments. Industry-critical work such as free software or Wikipedia is not counted as value at all. Today's economic model has failed at reflecting real value and at promoting industry-critical fundamentals. Job policy and economic policy is based on this faulty model. ... One model for the swarm economy could be a basic unconditional income for every citizen." Falkvinge.net Apr.2011

U.S. futurist James Hughes: "The brief reign of the knowledge worker could soon be over. What if there are no more types of labor accessible to humans that artificial intelligence and robotics cannot do more cheaply and efficiently, with higher quality? Marshall Brain makes a very convincing case that there are very few occupations ultimately exempt from automation. ... Jobs will disappear, wages will fall and we will face three choices: Luddism, barbarism or basic income."

German millionaire Gotz Werner: "For the first time in over 5,000 years of human history, we live with a surplus. But we cannot handle this new reality. We are unable to have everyone profit from and share in it. ...we don't need a right to work, at least not to instructed, social security contributing salary work. It's no longer up to date. We need a right to income. To an unconditional basic income."

These are just a few examples of the work/income paradigm minutely shifting. In addition, numerous positive outcomes from a recent Namibian village basic income pilot project revealed assumptions about negative affects to be unfounded.

(See also the draft report on the outcomes of the 1970s Manitoba Mincome; and more news, links and information at: Basic Income Earth Network , BIEN Japan, U.S. B.I.G Network, BIENCanada and Citizen's Income UK; and links and news page of this website.)

With more people in many countries joining this movement, humanity may be able to transition away from a death-cycle economy to a livable economy, and a livable world.


Two more points to help drive a stake into the Malthus scarcity zombie corpse:

Whenever you hear about the 'too many people' problem, keep in mind the reason for its tenacity (in spite of evidence to the contrary):

"the enduring popularity of the overpopulation myth" is due to its "usefulness to the ideological guardians of the establishment." --Murray Bookchin, Which Way for the Ecology Movement?1993

And when you get a rash from thinking about: sputter sputter - Giving people money for nothing!! Gasp! - it is because of how we were all raised, by people who still had either direct experience or close second-hand experience with a manual labor and a farm-centric economy. But now our 'hard work' moral hang-over is imperiling the planet (e.g. working hard cutting down old growth forests, or selling crap products designed for obsolescence, or selling crap food that ruins people's (and children's) health).

"But because of this psychological 'lag' many people cannot even understand new ideas presented in the concept of a guaranteed income, because traditional ideas are usually determined by feelings that originated in previous forms of social existence."   --Eric Fromm, The Psychological Aspects of the Guaranteed Income, The Guaranteed Income, edited by Robert Theobald, 1967

....Part II A Tale of Two Memes: Turning Abundance Into Scarcity

Next in this series of 2011 articles will be a look at the roots of how we think about hard work (from traditional male experiences which excludes unpaid work); and how the overpopulation meme is a sneaky way to blame mothers for all the world's problems.

C.A. L'Hirondelle has been researching and writing about guaranteed livable income from a grassroots perspective since 1998. More articles here.

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