Cornucopia

01 The shift to abundance

December 15, 2021 Karim Benammar
Cornucopia
01 The shift to abundance
Show Notes Transcript

We are undergoing a fundamental transformation in human history: the shift to abundance. Three stories about how to make a shift from scarcity to abundance in our thinking, in our lives, and in how we shape the future. 

Welcome to Cornucopia, the podcast in which we examine what it means to live abundantly. My name is Karim Benammar. I want to invite you to go on a number of walks. These are explorative journeys in which we are going to look at the shift to abundance. I believe that while the world is abundant, we are stuck in frame of scarcity. I want to find out why that is the case, and how we can shift from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset. What would that mean, for us individually, for our own lives, but also for our communities, for our organisations, for our companies. What would it mean globally? How can we design, and create, and shape the world we want to live in at the beginning of the 21st century? 

 I'm actually on a walk now in a nature park in the north of the Netherlands. It’s the end of the afternoon, it’s grey, but it’s still very beautiful. Imagine that we are walking together, I'm walking next to you and I'm just talking a lot. Some researcher figured out that we are 30% more creative when we walk than when we sit. I don't know exactly how they measured this, but if this is true we are going to have a 30% more exciting time discussing these ideas while I’m walking. Perhaps you are walking too when you’re listening to this. To be honest , the initial recording was made on the walk, but I am actually re-recording this because of the quality of the audio recording.

Since this is the inaugural podcast, the first of the series, I'd like to introduce this idea of abundance to you: why talk about abundance? Why name a podcast Cornucopia? Why is that the question of our time? 

We need to talk about abundance because we are experiencing a dramatic shift: we are shifting from a world of scarcity to a world of abundance; from a world in which we don't have enough, in which we are struggling to get more, to a world where we realise that we have plenty, and that getting more things is not our main problem. It's a shift from a world of surviving to a world of living. It’s a shift from a world of struggle to a world of possibilities and freedom. It's a shift from being trapped by our fundamental needs to a situation in which we have solved our fundamental needs. We are then faced with a different question: what does it mean to live?

I believe very strongly that were in the middle of this transition: we are leaving a world of scarcity behind, and have already entered this new world of abundance. But this new world is strange for us. All our strategies, all our habits, all our customs, all our patterns are still driven by this sense of scarcity, by a sense of struggle, by a sense of not having enough. We are taking these patterns into this new world of abundance, in which they don't work very well. And this makes us confused. We are confused because the old way of doing things doesn't really make sense any more, but we haven't yet figured out how to live in this new way. The question really is: how do we live abundantly?

This question touches on lots of different fields: there are a lot of different approaches. It’s an economic question: how can we make sure that there is enough for everyone, that we can be wealthy enough to live the way we want to live? It's an ecological question about natural resources and the effect of human beings on the planet. It's a psychological question about always wanting more or a sense of plenty. It’s a question about the reasons for our consumption. And it's a philosophical question about the meaning of life, an existential question: why are we alive? What happens to us when we shift from surviving to living? 

The plan is to explore a different angle in each episode, on each of these walks. We will ask different questions: why is there abundance? What is the surplus? Why is there scarcity? What happens to scarcity and abundance during a pandemic? Why do we consume? Do we need economic growth? What does it mean to be rich? As you can tell, it's an ambitious programme - those are deep and difficult questions, but then again we’ve got quite a number of walks ahead of us. We have plenty of time to think about these ideas and explore the consequences for our lives. 

[music]

In this inaugural podcast, I want to tell you three stories about the shift to abundance. A general story about the history of humanity, a story about the frame of scarcity in the last few centuries, and the more personal story about how I came to be fascinated by these questions. They are stories, of course, and thus simplifications. 

The first story, global story is that once upon a time, there was a planet in the solar system, where apes evolved to become human beings with large brains. At some point, they invented language, started recording history, developed agriculture and commerce. They migrated across the continents, started exploring the seas, settled in villages and then cities, and built up powerful civilisations. 

This process started accelerating about five centuries ago, with the development of empires and a global trading infrastructure. Then came the industrial revolution, powered by coal and the steam engine, by a better understanding of nature and by our capacity to develop new technologies . This acceleration became even more pronounced in the last 70 years, since the middle of the last century, when we invented new things like the computer and the Internet. And here we are today, with almost 8 billion human beings living on this planet.

The remarkable thing about the history of our species and civilisations  is this idea of progress. For most of history, we were dirt poor. We now define extreme poverty as living on less than two dollars a day - in today’s money , and for most of history everybody - except a tiny minority, less than 1%, was extremely poor. A couple of centuries ago, 90% of us were extremely poor. Halfway through the last century, 50%. And now only 10% live in extreme poverty. That’s still almost a billion people, far too many in a world that is so rich. And it’s also true that half the global population still lives on less than $10 a day. So there is still work to be done.

On the other hand, it also means that we have created a life of health, wealth and ease, and possibility for billions of people. This in itself is an amazing achievement that we can be rightfully proud of. Of course, we are still facing many complex problems. Apart from global poverty, there are ecological consequences to our rapid growth. There are political tensions, there may be dangers that threaten our civilisation or our species in the future.

On this view, in this summary of the story of humanity in a couple of minutes, we see an enormous shift: a shift from a world of widespread scarcity to a world which is half  abundance. With this great acceleration over the last 70 years, we have created a world of plenty. A world with plenty of products, plenty of experiences and plenty of possibilities for billions of people. We have we democratised wealth to a remarkable degree . 

This is a fundamental shift. What it means to be alive at the beginning of the 21st century is a very different thing from what was to be alive at the beginning of the 20th century, or the beginning of the 16th century, or earlier in recorded history. And we need to make sense of those changes. These are fundamental changes in the way we organise our lives, in the way that we live our lives, in the way we think about our lives. This overall story of humanity - even if it is extremely simplified - is the story of progress.

[music]

There is also a second story, which treats the last 400 years as a different frame from the time preceding it. On this story, while it is true that we were always poor, it's not clear that we have always lived with a sense a scarcity. Scarcity is the feeling that there is not enough to go around, it’s the feeling that you don't have enough. And so it has to do a lot with your expectations. If we have no expectations about owning anything, about the quality of our life, then we  wouldn’t experience a feeling of scarcity. In very stable societies, where nothing really changes, where everybody knows their place and there is no possibility to change our station, there is less comparison: less comparison to others, and less comparison to a life that we could have had, and so less of a feeling of scarcity.

The idea is that it is the massive changes in production and consumption, which were ushered in by the Industrial Revolution, with the beginnings of the financial system and  economic thinking, which made us think in terms of scarcity. We started comparing ourselves to others. We started to believe that by hard work we could create a better future for ourselves, that we could move from the fields to the working class, then onto the middle-class, and perhaps even to the upper-class. The idea of progress began to take hold, and the belief that each generation would have it better than the generation that came before it.

When you compare yourself to others or to your future self, it's much easier to be discontented. It's much easier to focus on what you lack, and to experience a feeling of scarcity. Our first story was a simple and accelerating historical shift from overall scarcity to gradual abundance. But in this story, there was neither scarcity nor abundance until about 400 years ago. It is the very experience of scarcity which made us want to grow, to start mass-producing objects for consumption, to market and advertise products. Our global production-consumption system came today comes not from a sense of abundance, but from a sense of scarcity. 

Even in this second story, we are seeing a shift, a shift that is much more recent. In the last few decades, partly because of the digital revolution, we’ve produced so many things so successfully that we have are reaching levels of saturation: we have so much more than we’ll ever need. We have truly been able to create a world of plenty. And so the fundamental problem for developed, advanced societies is no longer how to produce more, but how to deal with  this abundance: how to create a social and economic system which is based on abundance.

This is not so straightforward. Our current economic thinking is based on a principle of scarcity. Economics by definition is the science which deals the distribution of goods under conditions of scarcity. Economics can't really deal with abundance. When something is abundant, it is basically free. And when something is free, it's not really part of an economic system. While this second story is a lot shorter than the first one, it goes a long way to explaining the kind of economic, social, and political system we live in. Here again, we need to be able to make a shift. A shift to an economics of abundance, a shift to a society of abundance, to a world of abundance. It's not just a shift in our capacity to produce and to consume. It’s also a mental shift. A shift in our perception of the world, a shift in our understanding of the world, a shift in the way that we act in the world.

[music]

The third story is shorter again, because it's the story of my life and how I got to think about abundance. I'm 55 years old and as a child I was already fascinated by philosophical questions: why is the world as it? Why isn't it any different? Could it have evolved in a completely different way? How do we change the world? I was curious about the natural world, about gravity, about the laws of physics, about the universe, but also about the world that we have constructed together. Why did we make the school system in the way that we did? How does money work? Why are we sometimes happy and sometimes unhappy? What makes us happy?

So you can imagine that with this kind of questioning attitude, it was a good idea to go on study philosophy. I studied philosophy in England, went on to do my graduate work in the United States. I went to Japan because I got interested in eastern philosophy, and I ended up teaching philosophy at university. And while I really enjoyed teaching and students, and university life, I also felt something was missing. And so in the late 1990s, and in my early 30s, I got involved in the United Nations project on global issues. And this really opened my mind: the possibility to think philosophically and conceptually about problems on a global scale. 

There are lots of global problems, of course, but two problems stood out for me: the economic problem of global poverty, and the ecological problem of pollution, of species loss, and the beginnings of climate change. My initial idea was that both of these problems were caused by fundamental scarcity. From an economic perspective, there isn't enough to go around for all of us, there isn’t enough to make everybody wealthy. From an ecological perspective, there aren’t enough natural resources on the planet to sustain us. And in my first writing on the subject, I argued for an understanding of ecological limits and for economic restraint.

But I quickly realised that something was wrong, that in thinking in terms of scarcity, I was applying the wrong frame to our situation. Historically, it didn't make sense. Conceptually, it didn't make really sense. In terms of human ambition and human potential and human life, it didn't make sense, it didn’t make sense either. The fundamental realisation I had was that we shouldn't look at the problem from a perspective of scarcity, but rather from a perspective of abundance. That was quite a powerful moment. That was my philosophical epiphany.

So, over the last 25 years, I've been developing a philosophy of abundance: how can we think from a perspective of abundance, from a frame of abundance? How do we change to a psychology of abundance, and to an economics of abundance? I published a book about this in 2005, which you’ll be surprised to hear is titled Abundance. In order to spread the word, I’ve given dozens of lectures, week-long summer schools, and also developed free online courses on this shift to abundance. 

Making this podcast, going on the explorative walks together, allows us to take the time to explore these issues, to see how economic issues are related to ecological issues, and how the psychology of always wanting more is related to existential questions about what it means to live a good life. This podcast is called cornucopia - the horn of plenty in Latin - which, of course, is another word for abundance. 

 It’s an invitation to explore this together, to think about all these different aspects which make up our lives at the beginning of the 21st-century. Can we make a shift to abundance on an individual level, as communities, as organisations and companies, and on a global level? Can we make a shift from a world ruled by the struggle to survive to a world of peace, we have health, we have wealth, we have ecological health, and we have freedom? This shift is not going to solve all our problems: the question of how to live, and  how to live well, is perhaps even more difficult than the question of how to make a living. Making the shift means that we can start tackling this question: how should we live? Thank you for listening, and I hope you will join me on the next episode of Cornucopia.