Breaking the tyranny of scarcity
We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.
Scarcity is So now…
Every day we hear more and more about scarcity. We hear that the expected demands of a growing world population will increase conflict over scarce resources. We hear that delivering against the growth plans of global companies and the expectations of a growing middle class will put pressure on supplies of food, water and the rare metals present in the goods we have grown to depend upon for our sense of self.
We are fixated upon the scarcity of valuable resources.
In the coming decades, we are told, we will need to compete ever harder over smaller and smaller quantities of materials which we once treated as effectively limitless.
Limits to growth?
The earth is an island of life floating in a pretty sterile sea of space. While we receive a daily bounty of 84 Terawatts of solar income every day, we get precious little else. Were we to receive new supplies of minerals or metals they would likely arrive with the rather high delivery cost.
It would be logical to organise ourselves in cognisance of these facts.
However, our economic and industrial models do not recognise these parameters as part of their design principles. The two big challenges we face are that:
- We are using resources which are only replenished over geological timescales at a rate likely to give rise to intense scarcity, and:
- Our use of such resources, combined with the unsustainable harvesting of natural productivity, endangers the functioning of our life supporting ecosystems.
Who ate all the pies? – We did (in the West). The pies that we ate were extravagant, wasteful and wonderfully tasty. How extravagant? Very – eighty percent of the world’s resources are consumed by just 16% of the world’s population. Moreover, that consumption is highly wasteful; the US economy for example, has been estimated to have a total material efficiency of between only 1% and 10%.
The pies we have been enjoying are going to become increasingly scarce and expensive in the coming years – and more people have equally justified expectations of being able to enjoy them. We either need to stop eating pies or change the recipes we use.
On a crowded planet, scarcity is of limited utility
As the churn through vital resources gets ever faster we become necessarily more and more fixated on scarcity and the perverse relationship between scarcity and value grows ever stronger.
Yet scarcity is pretty useless if you have big plans. We need to break the link between scarcity and price.
Scarcity may be economically very powerful, but it is of very limited value for a future of 9 billion people, all seeking the material and financial well-being and security that those of us lucky enough to be born in the West have grown to consider as our birth right.
Scarcity is not a good basis for a viable business strategy
Basing technology on recognisably scarce resources and materials makes no business sense either. What rational business would, on the one hand, make plans for growth in the production and supply of products and services whilst on the other hand building those technologies and services using resources that are not abundant or safe enough to meet these growth targets? Surely such an inherent contradiction should be of prime concern to company leaders and investors?
But scarcity does exist, it can’t be denied
Of course scarcity exists – but the risk that it poses to our ambitions in business, economic and quality of life terms depends almost entirely upon how we undertake the following:
- Focus on the sustainable use and continued re-use of scarce resources.
- Prioritise the use of abundant and renewable resources.
New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.
Abundance is So tomorrow
Scarcity is a fundamental component of the derivation of price. Current economics uses the scarcity of a good or service to determine its price through a combination of supply and demand.
However, price has failed to adequately equate to value – the value of the natural systems that support life has been treated as an externality and largely ignored.
Scarcity may provide a simple and effective way of generating price but it is fatally flawed as an approach to delivering a sustainable future on a populated planet. Abundance is a far more valuable criterion for informing price than scarcity.
In this context, abundance is either a natural aspect of a resource, good or service, or can be achieved through the sustainable management of non-renewable resources, thereby suggesting two forms of abundance, literal and functional.
Literal abundance is just that, a good or resource which depends upon components which are naturally abundant, or which can be derived amply through sustainable production and stewardship approaches.
Ecosystems run on abundance, not on scarcity or even efficiency. Natural systems produce material in abundance and wastage provides feedstock for other parts of the system. Basing our technological and industrial models upon these types of raw materials and flows would allow us to operate without the conventional limits to growth which currently constrain us.
Technologies are starting to exploit such resources, including the use of materials such as hemp for making body panels on cars, microalgae for producing jet fuel and bacteria to extract precious metals from waste.
Functional or technical abundance, though often under another name, is a relatively recognised concept. In their Cradle-to-Cradle approach, McDonough and Braungart talk of a “technical cycle” – where scarce and potentially harmful materials are cycled endlessly through closed loop industrial models.
The concept is echoed in the developing circular economy approach. The focus of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the circular economy seeks to design industrial models based upon stewardship and symbiosis, where the waste of one process becomes the feedstock of another.
There is much distance left to travel
While many of the technologies and approaches needed to build our economies upon abundance exist, some require vast efforts of R&D and investment in order to discover, implement and scale technologies that can deliver performance and utility to the whole of the world’s population.
If one way be better than another, that you may be sure is nature’s way.
Vital technologies – the next industrial revolution
Our technologies and production processes must take a step towards the realms of science fiction to crack the mysteries of nature, to mimic the elegance, simplicity and safety of biological production.
We call such production “lifelike vital technologies”, those which borrow from and harness biological production techniques, including: ultra-low energy growth, abundant degradable production and room temperature chemical and material production. Such approaches are not just fiction; Biomimicry seeks to learn from and adapt design techniques from nature and even more revolutionarily, significant investments are starting to be poured into advanced approaches to using biology for technological and industrial production and into the idea of using living materials for building.
Defeating the tyranny of scarcity
Scarcity makes us think small at a time when we should be thinking big. Scarcity makes us fight for our share of the scraps when our planet’s life could support us in sharing abundance. Scarcity fills us with fear when we need to grow our hope.
It is time to defeat the tyranny of scarcity and to truly value abundance.
This article was originally published in Guardian Sustainable Business on 08/08/2012