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Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

It takes an oil crisis to propel energy efficiency. It takes a food crisis to promote sustainable agriculture. It takes a financial crisis to instigate banking regulation. It takes a climate crisis to address carbon emissions.

Crisis management is our default, and the one crisis we agonize over again and again is the crisis of surplus. We disdain a surplus, far preferring scarcity because, in scarcity, we are the most motivated and dynamic. Scarcity propels innovation, creativity and inventiveness. Necessity is the mother of genius.

A downside of scarcity is desperation, which we assuage with short-sightedness and expedience. The desperation of scarcity can either unite or divide. When it unites, people are empowered with humanitarian virtues like sharing, charity and good will. When desperation divides, scarcity foments aggressive self-interest and war. History records it both ways, depending on the values of a people and the circumstances of time and place.

A surplus implies a crisis because, if we have too much of everything, then there’s no need to grow, and growth is the modus operandi of our economy. We devise ways to consume ourselves into scarcity so that growth is not only prudent; our survival hinges on it.

“Grow or die” pits us against survival because much of our security seems to lie solely in material measures. Spiritual enrichment and cultural refinements are secondary to our most innate drive for self-preservation, no matter how technologically advanced and materially rich we are.

Survival is our rationale for altering Earth’s climate, wiping out species, decimating oceans, strip-mining mountaintops, clear-cutting forests. The excesses of industry are made reasonable by a habitual survival reflex.

Survival translates into stress, psychological imbalance, and tiger moms. Survival is the rationale for ever-growing defense spending, cheap energy and devalued resources. Survival is the buzz in political speeches, parental admonitions, and advertising. Apocalyptic sermons brim with survival warnings to the soul. Scarcity is the prime contributor to our perpetual survival drama. We keep it that way to sustain the existing hierarchy.

Cultural anthropologists suggest it all began about 10,000 years ago with the Agricultural Revolution when farmers eradicated hunter-gatherers and began producing annual surpluses. Rather than allowing a surplus to go to waste or cutting production to satisfy immediate needs, human populations grew to consume it. We have lived on the fine edge of surplus and scarcity ever since.

Surplus is discouraged because it lowers prices and profits. Scarcity, not surplus, makes people rich. Corner the market on finite resources and name your price. The Aspen real-estate market has proven this for decades as limited inventory drives up prices ad nauseum. For those who control resources, scarcity is a blessing. For the average consumer, it’s a curse.

Scarcity concentrates power in the status quo. Scarcity elevates leaders and humbles followers. Scarcity demands conformity. If you want a share of the commons in order to survive, you merge your interests, talents and resources with those of the tribe.

In the long run, scarcity is dangerous because crisis management is not good planning. This is especially true today when the low-hanging fruit – cheap resources – has already been plucked, enabling a world population approaching 9 billion. The only thing there’s no scarcity of today is humanity, which is perhaps why we devalue each other by waging wars and practicing genocide.

Unwieldy population has made the fine edge between surplus and scarcity acute, the risks much larger, the systemic imbalances far greater. We face natural tipping points and thresholds where none existed before because population growth is unprecedented. Still, we push on, our blind faith undiminished by financial failures, ecological catastrophes, and political dysfunction. We push against the natural world and rely on a nick-of-time technological cure for whatever negative feedback loop we trigger.

“It’s all good,” we chant as survival depends more on one’s hairstyle, wardrobe and social networking than on growing food or chopping wood. It’s all good as we manipulate ourselves into a scarcity from which there may be no easy fix, no fast relief, no fallback surplus. Through design, scarcity is fast becoming our legacy, surplus our lost opportunity.


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