Finding Abundance in a World of Scarcity

As a result of years of conversation, Esther Emery and I have decided to coordinate at least one post per week on the topics that have come to dominate those conversations.  As Esther and her beautiful family embark on a new family adventure and seek to engage these ideas head-on as modern homesteaders, my family has found ourselves drawn back to the city.  With these two divergent paths, we will blog from our own experiences and environments on a given topic.  You will find a link to Esther’s blog at the bottom of this post.  Please continue reading and join the conversation.

This week’s topic:  Abundance Vs. Scarcity

We live in a world of scarcity.  At least that’s what has been sold to us.  Scarcity is what makes our current economic model work.  Scarcity is what persuades you to “stock up”.  It is what encourages rising prices.  Scarcity is cemented into the entire framework of a free-market capitalist paradigm.  Supply and demand… That’s scarcity.  That’s less supply equals more demand equals higher prices and bigger profits.  The notion of scarcity is used across the board by each side of a capitalist argument.  It is used by the oil companies to justify higher prices when supply is down or when they need to invest in new drilling infrastructure, yet it is also used by environmentalists to justify the need to move away from oil and toward renewables due to peak oil and rising carbon emissions – an idea I happen to agree with and often spout myself.  Scarcity is used by the market when the price of corn is driven up after a bad crop like the one we saw this year due to nearly unprecedented drought.  It is used by large agri-business companies to justify genetic alteration to our food supply with the explanation that that genetic modification will help to feed the world because hunger is due to a lack or scarcity of food.  We use scarcity in our home and family life when we wall off our home from our neighbors to keep what’s ours inside the bounds of our property.

There are myriad examples in our daily life of the permeating effect that scarcity has on our psyche.  Scarcity employs fear.  Because this notion that we live in a world of scarce resources, money, happiness, food and sustenance is so deeply rooted in our collective view of the world, and because we humans are still endowed with some natural instincts, we are virtually incapable of seeing anything other than the dangers that life presents.  It’s true.  Our fight or flight instincts take control and we find it physically difficult to concentrate on anything other than the dangers to our well-being.  That’s biology.  Sure, we are no longer concerned day in and day out that a large feline will pounce from a tree and make a meal out of us, but we are no less susceptible to fear.  We all have a big cat hiding in a tree.  Perhaps it’s a looming rent payment.  Maybe it’s a doctor’s appointment.  It’s possible that you fear getting into a car accident, or climate change, or global war?  These instincts are strong in us, and for millennia, we needed them to make it through the day.  We are, however, at the dawning of a new consciousness or understanding of the world and I believe that if we act deliberately and collectively, we can put that instinct in our pocket and save it for the truly big cats.

As we strive to understand the world in which we live and how it is changing, I think it is imperative that we take a long hard look at how we live – in our communities, our neighborhoods, and in harmony with our environment.  When you begin to look at the systems we have in place with a severely critical eye, you will, I think, recognize redundancies, waste, inefficiencies, and… well…  abundance.

Take, for example, the way in which we deal with storm water.  Water is a contentious issue.  In some regions of this country we are worried about perennial floods, in others, droughts, yet we deal with storm water pretty much the same way, across the country – at least at the point of contact with an individual home.  The rain falls on the roof, collects in the gutters (if we’ve cleaned them out), travels to the downspout and is directed away from the house towards the city’s storm drainage system, which in most cases, is directed toward local tributaries, which in turn flow to rivers and then the sea, all the while siphoned off where rights permit to irrigate commodity crops.  Then, when we need to water our garden, we pay the city to pump fresh water back on to our property.  As I said before, water is contentious, for a variety of reasons including pest control, the spread of disease, structural integrity of neighboring properties, and often hidden behind these and other reasons, water rights, or profit.  For instance, in the last two places I have lived (San Diego, CA and Boulder County, CO) it is illegal to collect rain water with cited reasons being control of mosquito populations and water rights.  In Boulder County, all the water that falls on my roof belongs to Denver and steep fines are levied if you are found to be collecting that water, yet I must pay to have water pumped back to my house if I want to water the food I grow on site.  A quick calculation shows that over 25,000 gallons of water fall on the roofs of the house we live in and the garage, yet that water is pushed toward the street.  This is ill-used abundance.

As another example, local apples recently came into season, and I can buy them at any grocery store in town for around $3.00/lb.  As I have walked about our neighborhood over the previous couple of months I have counted 10 or more apple trees within a five block radius of my house. All of them weighed down with fruit that has eventually fallen to the ground creating a mess of applesauce on the sidewalks and in the yards of my neighbors. Literally hundreds of bushels of apples within walking distance and nearly all of them wasted and rotting on the ground. We collected about 40 or 50 of these apples from trees that were on public lands.  We made baked apples, apple juice, and apple pie, but could have started a production line had we the means to harvest them all, and that’s not including the wasted fruit from the trees we saw on private property.  This is ill-used abundance.

To look at an example beyond my own neighborhood, we can return to the agri-business companies that currently tout genetically modified seed as the solution to hunger around the globe.  This, in my opinion, is an insidious example of scarcity used to produce profit.  Large companies like these assume when they make their arguments about world hunger that the only way to feed the world is with the industrialized food system.  The arguments assume that we must grow massive crops of corn, rice, wheat and soybeans in order to provide baseline nutrition for starving communities.  They assume that the only way to feed starving nations is through delivered food aid in the form of charity.  If you take a closer look at aid of this sort, you will see just how much of the money spent to deliver that aid is eaten up in profit by the companies that deliver it.  You will see that much of it goes to the companies that provide the seed (they’re not giving it away).  Then the farmers, many of whom amount to sharecroppers for large conglomerates rather than family owned farms due to the exorbitant cost of running a farm of the scale that can produce single crops in the quantity “needed.”  Then it’s the companies that process and package the food for delivery.  And finally, the global shipping companies that deliver the food to the actual people that need it.

This is a dependent system.  There is money to be made by this scarcity, and this type of aid does nothing to remove the need of the people, thereby shackling them to a scarcity paradigm.  When the food aid runs out, they will need more because food is still scarce in that region.   The food is commodified, and without the money to purchase it, those communities will remain in need of that aid which further feeds the profits of the companies involved in delivering the aid.  Another common misconception about this type of aid is that these are regions where food just won’t grow so the food must come from outside.  That can’t be possible or people would never have settled in those regions to begin with.  There was a time when these communities produced all they needed, but through a scarcity model that says they are in need and an overwhelming lack of education, they have become dependent on outside help to sustain their communities.  This comes about differently for each of these communities.  For some it is a free-market coming to an area that had no experience or need for capitalism or commodification of their resources.  For others it’s depletion of fresh water due to contamination by industry.  For others still it is desertification due to clear-cutting and soil erosion.  Each dependent community has it’s own unique story.  So where’s the abundance here?  It comes about when those communities are empowered to take their fate into their own hands.

Aid is terribly important here, but not the kind described above. By using the massive amount of aid (in the form of dollars) the world is capable of delivering for farming education and community building, we can bring these communities back and produce abundance for everyone.  Heifer International, whose mission can be viewed here, is a prime example of how aid can empower communities to bring about change and abundance.  Permaculture India is working with rural communities to develop permaculture farms that find all they need within those farms rather than depending on external inputs.  And here in the United States, Will Allen, through his organization, Growing Power, is “Inspiring communities to build sustainable food systems that are equitable and ecologically sound, creating a just world, one food-secure community at a time.”  All of these organizations are committed to bringing abundance to poverty stricken communities through education and empowerment by way of self-actualized food security.

These have all been concrete examples of how the world in which we live produces scarcity, when in fact, abundance is present, but let’s consider the abstract.  Let’s go back to that instinct and the perpetual barrage of scarcity the surrounds us in our communities.  If we are pre-conditioned to accept that there is something to be fearful of around every corner, how do we change our thinking?  How do we put that fear aside and focus on inviting abundance in to our own lives and families and communities?

As it turns out, this shift in thinking is already beginning.  It is happening incrementally at the ultra-local level.  All around the world, small groups of people are working hard to protect their communities from destruction.  That destruction comes about in a number of ways as mentioned above, though climate change, or resource exploitation, or by the overlaying of social structures on top of cultures that are not interested in shifting their way of life.  Paul Hawken, in his book Blessed Unrest, estimates that there could be as many as one million of these small civic and cultural groups around the world that focus their efforts on self-healing and community preservation.  People are beginning to take matters in to their own hands and ignore the common wisdom of patriarchal systems that have passed judgement on the worth of their communities based mostly on their ability to contribute to economic growth.  As Grace Lee Boggs points out in her recent book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism For the Twenty-First Century, “Many of these groups are inspired by a philosophy that replaces the scientific and reductive rationalism of seventeenth-century Western male philosophers (such as Descartes and Bacon) with the ways of knowing of Indigenous Peoples (which include the perceptions of trees and animals) and women, based on intimate connections with Nature and ideas of healing and caring that were part of European village culture prior to the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century witch hunts.”

We are coming to the end of an age.  This age brought us much prosperity and brought much of the world out of poverty, but we have reached the limits of it’s ability to create real abundance.  It is an age that will collapse on itself if we do not turn the page and move forward.  More than 10,000 years ago, we roamed the earth with no society outside of those with whom we hunted and gathered with.  The age of agriculture brought us closer together and allowed us to put down roots and explore our capacity for compassion and shared sacrifice.  The Axial age laid the foundation for our spirituality as we settled down in those communities that the agricultural age allowed.  The industrial age further centralized us and grew our communities as we built the great cities of the world.  The information age has filled us to the brim with knowledge of our ancestors, our brothers and sisters across the world, our faults, our triumphs, and our possibilities.  Boggs points us to Karen Armstrong, the 2008 TED prize winner, author, and spiritual scholar noting that “Armstrong is convinced that as a result of urbanization, globalization, and rapidly changing technology the whole world is now in the midst of a social crisis as profound as that of the Axial Age.  We are therefore called on to make a similar leap in faith, to practice a similar compassion.  Native People’s view of the Earth as a sacred entity rather than only as a resource, she believes, provides us with a model.”

In my personal experience, I have noticed over the last couple of years how important the notion of abundance is for me.  I have ebbed and flowed with the tides of my thoughts for how to remake myself.  I’ve struggled with how to be more true to my belief that abundance is the reality of our world rather than the model of scarcity that penetrates our social fabric and can so quickly discourage us from our path.  I have seen great abundance in support from my friends and family.  I have also seen how scarcity and my fear of it can absolutely paralyze me and close me off from opportunities that are staring me in the face.  I want to live from a place of abundance.  My world is more full, my heart is happy, and my mind at ease when I do.  When I succumb to scarcity as my reality, I feel empty, heavy, hopeless and afraid.

Abundance is a state of mind. It is not food or water or resources of any kind.  It is not sunlight and wind or gas and coal providing all the energy we need.  It is not money.  It is not capitalism or socialism or communism.  Abundance is the heart with which we strive compassionately to end poverty and hunger.  It is the wealth of community and friendship and family we need to feel safe and loved in the world.  It is the collective will of the people to provide for one another.  It is the reverence and awe of our environment that we must have in order to preserve life.  It is the nourishment of our bodies and minds with the fruit of our hope for peace.  It is our recognition of all peoples as one humanity.  We are each other’s keepers.

For another take on the issues of Abundance Vs. Scarcity please visit Esther Emery’s Blog here.  We have made a point to coordinate these posts so that the conversation can grow among our community and any who choose to engage in the discussion.  Together we grow.  

4 thoughts on “Finding Abundance in a World of Scarcity

  1. “Abundance is a state of mind.” Bold that! It’s so important to hear each other say stuff like this. You’re saying so much the same thing that I am. And I think we both really believe it. But both of us, when we’re not talking to each other, have trouble making the paradigm switch in our own heads. I kind of want to have those documented examples of waste, what you called “ill used abundance” on index cards for every time I forget that there is any logical reason to believe that we really do have enough to go around.

  2. In mulling all of this over, it occurs to me that the human shift to agriculture has had the opposite of its intended effect on people’s psyches. The draw towards agriculture, as opposed to hunting and gathering, was the idea that a group of people could have a secure food supply, and grow more of the group’s favorite foods right in place-bounty at your fingertips. But staying in one spot had major drawbacks. First, because people no longer followed the food, they became reliant on the fertility of a very small piece of land. This means that if there was a flood, a drought or blight, people starved. When people grew and grew on the same soil without replenishing nutrients, crops failed and people starved. This actually began turning people against nature. Anything that led to healthy, abundant crops was deemed “good” and anything that led to crop failure was deemed “bad” or worse yet “evil” or, the will of an angry god. Were people being punished for some reason? That pesky idea of original sin seemed proven by heavy rains and hailstorms. We began collectively feeling that nature was harsh, and against us. We were scared of it, and therefore needed to somehow control it. These feelings supported human endeavors to ‘conquer the wild,’ to expand the frontier, to clearcut forests and use nature as we pleased. How does all of this relate to scarcity you may, by now, be asking?

    I think this perception of inexhaustible resources, coupled with the western mindset that nature was there for us to exploit, fueled our current commodity based economy. Here in the colonies, our modus operandi became: “We’ll steal stuff that’s always been free for the taking, and sell it back to you at a price.” Ben points to that in his mention of rainwater collection. In time we became reliant on benefactors, lost the skills we needed to take care of ourselves, and worst of all, lost confidence in the concept of abundance as a birthright.

    Agriculture didn’t free us, it made us scared and dependent. There are megacorporations out there still perpetuating the fear cycle in new and creative ways. Monsanto makes a habit of suing regular ol’ Janes for saving their own seed. There are laws, in some places, that make having a front yard garden illegal. These are examples of the aging logic that still maintains its stranglehold on the emerging paradigm of abundance. But there is a stirring. I suspect it will be a full whirlpool here in the next decade. Things are changing, and I, for one, am working towards abundance.

    • I don’t know that agriculture leads necessarily to a dominator worldview, though… I hope not. I don’t know the anthropological history as well as you do. But I might just as easily trace the philosophy of dominating nature back to DesCartes, who said we could become “the Lords and Masters of Nature” and from him back to Francis Bacon, who said, “Knowledge is power.” There’s a pathway in the history of philosophy by which we changed the mystery of creation into a massive designer lego set. And maybe that path can be reversed? Or healed?

      Three cheers for the whirlpool!

    • I get your point Amy. I have been tearing apart ethnocentrism in my head lately and to me it is a related concept. Given what I consider to be a very human desire, to better our world and ourselves, and our inclination to build and maintain order it would make since that we would try farming. But yes I do not think that we knew what that would do to the land when we reached nature’s limits blamed it on nature (or the gods). And once the farms were OURS it because something that was not NATURE’S. We maintained it and felt justified using it how we pleased. We fought against animals, bugs and unsuitable weather. It was US vs. Nature. We became dependent on farming and forgot that there were other options. We thought if only we can do this better rather then trying something a different. And we have gotten ‘better’ at farming. But we have forgotten that out past our fields and our fences we used to find all that we needed.

      Now we certainly can’t go back to hunter gatherer, we have to go forward and learn more. The best we can do with farms now is crop rotation, fallow land and fertilization. But maybe we can find other ways to engage with nature to breakdown that separation between us and it. To find ways that she DOES provide us with abundance. To continue to refine our societies so that receiving that abundance is simpler.

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