A Tale of Two Memes Part II:
Turning Abundance into Scarcity
by C.A. L'Hirondelle, May 22, 2011
Abundance vs. scarcity was the topic of A Tale of Two Memes Part I —how the abundance movement of the post WWII years was, by the 1970s, eclipsed and obliterated by Malthusian over-population fear-mongering.
It has been noted by others that most scarcities and famines have political and not natural causes. However, as long as humanity continues to adopt the scarcity meme and not the abundance meme, there will be self-fulfilling scarcity outcomes.
(Note: The abundance meme does not mean individuals aiming to find their own personal deluxe abundance-in-a-bubble; it is aiming to create a livable world *for all* within natural limits. (Read Part 1.) Thinking you can have a good life while global society goes down the toilet is ultimately a big stinking Lose/Lose Plan.)
First some background on real gluts and fake scarcities.
ECONOMIC GLUTS GALORE
There are good reasons for the economics of abundance: there have been economic gluts for some time. Some examples:
"For when her population was at its highest, Ireland was a food exporting country. Even during the famine, grain and meat and butter and cheese were carted for exportation along roads lined with the starving and past trenches into which the dead were piled. ...It went not as an exchange, but as a tribute--to pay the rent of absentee landlords; a levy wrung from producers by those who in no wise contributed to production." —Henry George, Progress & Poverty, 1879
"Presently we experience on a world scale an enormous glut in many basic products, along with unmatched deprivation in the vast numbers of peoples gathered in the shantytowns of the world." —Thomas Berry, The Great Work,1999
"In recent years, sectors as diverse as automobiles, semiconductors, steel, textiles, consumer electronics, tires, and pharmaceuticals have been afflicted by over capacity." —Garry Emmons, Harvard Business School, 1999
"... hunger is not caused by a shortage of food... People are hungry because they are too poor to buy food." —Anuradha Mittal, The Sun (interview) February 2002
"... even bumper harvests have begun to push farmers into a vicious cycle of mounting debt and distress. ...farmers are increasingly becoming a victim of the new emerging phenomenon of "produce and perish". —Devinder Sharma, India Together, January, 2003
"the nature of crop agriculture... the chronic problem of supply growing faster than demand and the resulting low prices." —Daryll E. Ray, Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, University of Tennessee, 2005
See also documentaries Darwin's Nightmare and Life and Debt
So the problem is not productive or resource quantity - there is enough 'stuff' - the problem is lack of fair access.
WHEN 'THE POOR' ARE RICH
"Africa is endowed with an overwhelming abundance
of gems, metals, minerals and other natural resources."
—Wars for Africa's Wealth, New Internationalist, May 2004
Artificial scarcity is created when common wealth is plundered and put into a few private hands. Often 'the poor" are rich, until they have their wealth taken that is. Shortages and famines have had largely politcal and not natural causes (with exceptions). No less than Anne and Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb authors) admitted in 1995 that hunger was from maldistribution not scarcity.
Others have made the same observation:
"[in the early 1950's] US leaders became increasingly conscious that prosperity in North America and Western Europe depended heavily upon raw materials from 'underdeveloped' nations." —Bonnie Mass, Population Target, 1976
"The West would have us believe that overpopulation is causing starvation. So we blame ourselves-we are poor because we are too many. But there is no population problem. We are poor because of the terms of trade between the Third World and the West and because of food distribution policies.... In Bangladesh, it is political starvation." —Farida Akhter, Policy Research for Development Alternatives Bangladesh, interview, Victoria Times Colonist, May 6, 1989
"men and women working for U.S. corporations... were blind to the consequences of their actions, convinced that the sweatshops and factories that made shoes and automotive parts for their companies were helping the poor climb out of poverty, instead of simply burying them deeper in a type of slavery reminiscent of medieval manors and southern plantations." —John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hitman, 2004
INHERENT WASTE: ABUNDANCE ABUSED
Even though scarcities have been artificially created, failure to implement abundance economic and social policies will in fact create real natural resource scarcities. Why? Because of the inherent waste in a forced-production, forced-consumption (crapitalist) economy.
"In a sense we've built an economy that needs rampant consumerism as a fuel, just to keep the engine going." —Bruce Bartlett interview, In Debt we Trust, documentary, 2007
"It is the attempt to keep the economy growing fast enough to provide jobs for all that harnesses man [sic] to the juggernaut of scientific and technological change and that keeps us living within a 'whirling-dervish' economy dependent on compulsive consumption." —Robert Theobald, Free Men and Free Markets, 1963
"That 50 per cent, or more, of society's labor is wasted has been known by some of the world's best philosophers and was discussed extensively in academic circles seventy years ago. ...Waste, poverty, and welfare can be eliminated even while improving the quality of life of many in the wealthy countries, and it can be paid for from the savings incurred by reorienting the currently wasted labor and capital." —J.W.Smith, The World's Wasted Wealth 2, Save our Wealth, Save our Environment, 1994
See also Global Issues on wasted resource wealth
The economic requirement to maximize consumption (and waste resources) is also an incentive to produce disposable and poor-quality products.
"Planned obsolescence is the catch-all phrase used to describe the assortment of techniques used to artificially limit the durability of a manufactured good in order to stimulate repetitive consumption." —Giles Slade, Made to Break; Technology and Obsolescence in America, 2006
NIAGARA FALLS-SIZED WASTE
Many people have a growing concern about fresh water scarcity. However, when water shortage educators advocate for solutions, they do not point to the problem as being a system of waste that is mandatory under our current consumption and jobs-based economy.
For example, the Niagara Falls-sized water waste on things like golf courses, commercial flower growing, and let's not forget about 'the real thing': water diverted into carbonated high-fructose corn syrup drinks, that are bottled, hauled, and consumed by millions of people, many of whom will subsequently develop health problems resulting in the need for yet more piles of resources to be put into the medical and pharmaceutical industries.
Another waste example is the advertising industry. We as a society cut down trees, pulp them, haul them, print ads on them, deliver them, and then dump them into garbage bins or (big pats on the back!) recycling bins to be hauled away again.
Again, environmentalists like to focus on individual solutions to cut down on waste and not the inherent mandatory waste of current economy.
| We find all the no-life-support-wealth-producing people going to their 1980s jobs in their cars and buses, spending trillions of dollars' worth of petroleum daily to get to their no-wealth-producing jobs. It doesn't take a computer to tell you that it will save both Universe and humanity trillions of dollars a day to pay them handsomely to stay at home.
Buckminster Fuller. Critical Path 1982
Then there is the auto sector: Observe bumper-to-bumper rush hour—like a line of train cars, but each one with its own 150 horsepower engine (more or less) to haul 150 measly pounds (more or less) of human flesh.
The preposterous inefficiency and waste of the auto sector cannot easily be changed because of the sheer number of people employed in it. According to a 2003 Centre for Automotive Research report, one in ten jobs in the US is directly and indirectly related to the automotive sector. Direct jobs include: research and development, energy extraction, petroleum refining, trucking, warehousing, parking, highway construction, tolls roads/bridges/tunnels, insurance, credit/finance, advertising. Upstream jobs include: supplying metals, electronics, fluids, plastics, rubber, paint, textiles, glass, heating/cooling systems, industrial machinery and equipment. Downstream jobs include: new and used motor vehicle dealers, tire dealers, repair services, car rental, car washes and gas stations. (Economic Contribution of the Automotive Industry to the US economy, Centre for Automotive Research, Fall 2003)
And of course, related to the auto sector is the war sector - which is a special category of waste unto itself.
This relates to arguments justifying environmentally harmful or risky energy resource activities (oil sands, fracking, coal mining and burning, deep sea drilling, pipelines, oil tankers, mining for nuclear power plants etc.). Before we answer the question of how are we going to meet the world's energy 'needs' we must first address the fact that enormous amounts of energy are being squandered on massively wasteful activities which are perpetuated only on the basis that they will create jobs.
(To draw an analogy: Imagine you are a banquet caterer. You have carefully estimated the food (energy) needs of the guests. Suddenly the serving staff tells you there is a big shortage of food, and people are hungry. You start making plans to get more food, then you find out that big plates of perfectly good food are being dumped in the garbage. Your first move would not be to search for more food for the guests, but to stop the good food from being thrown away.)
MAKING PAUPERS AMIDST PLENTY
Karl Polanyi in his book The Great Transformation described how during the beginning of the market economy in England many people noticed that "poverty seemed to go with plenty" Polanyi writes "It was... agreed among eighteenth century thinkers that pauperism and progress were inseparable. The greatest number of poor is not to be found in barren countries or amidst barbarous nations, but in those which are the most fertile and the most civilized."
In 1796 Thomas Paine also observed "Poverty is a thing created by that which is called civilized life. It exists not in the natural state." (Agrarian Justice)
SPINNING DEEPER RUTS
As Adam Smith wrote in the Wealth of Nations in 1776, the purpose of production is consumption. Consumption rules our economy regardless of how wasteful, useless or harmful that consumption might be. If the waste stops, so do the jobs; that is why environmental movements have spun their wheels into an ever-deepening rut. The easiest solution will be to stop relying on jobs for income, and implement a universal income benefit.
Without implementing a guaranteed income at a livable level, increasing ecocide is inevitable because every citizen will have no choice but to produce products regardless of the impact on people or the planet. Destruction and waste-based jobs will reach a critical level of dysfunction and the scarcity meme will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
SAVE THE GREEN PLANET (and we don't need to tie up the bosses to do it.)
There are many reasons people have for advocating for a guaranteed income*: to address poverty, improve health, create economic justice; and to increase democracy. All those reasons are crucial, however, what is often overlooked is the beneficial (savior-like) impact a guaranteed income would have on the environment. We are currently squandering masses of natural and human resources; a universal income benefit can put an end to the otherwise unsolvable jobs vs. environment war (that green jobs also cannot solve).
Switching from a scarcity/too-many-people point of view, to a non-scarcity/we-have-enough-for-all point of view, would fundamentally change political, economic and social relationships. A societal milieu of 'enough', would mean people could cease regarding their fellow humans as competitors for resources; this would naturally lead to more social solidarity and some form of universal guaranteed livable income*.
Back to Part I - A Tale of Two Memes
*Along with guaranteed livable income (GLI), other terms for this policy include basic income guarantee, basic income grant, citizen's income, citizen's basic income, minimum income guarantee, national dividend, citizen's dividend, guaranteed annual income, LIFE grants (Livable Income For Everyone) and Buckminter Fuller's Lifetime Fellowship.
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. She is sometimes cranky and sarcastic when writing on this topic because ....
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