01 The shift to abundance

December 15, 2021 Karim Benammar
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 on a number of walks. Think of these walks as an explorative journey in which we are going to look at the shift to abundance, because I believe that fundamentally the world is abundant, and it is we who are stuck in a frame of scarcity. And I want to find out why that is the case, and how we could shift from this scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset. What does that mean? What does it mean for us individually? What does it mean for our own lives? What does it mean for our communities? What does it mean for our organizations, for our companies? What does it mean globally? How can we design, how can    we create, how can we shape the world that we want to live in at the beginning of the 21st century?

So on this first walk, I'm on a walk here in a park in the North of The Netherlands. It's the end of the afternoon, I  t's gray, but it's still very beautiful. Imagine that we are walking together, you and I. I'm walking next to you, and I'm just talking a lot. Some researcher figured out that we are actually 30% more creative when we walk, and so if I walk and perhaps you are walking, then creativity's going to go through the roof.

So since this is the first podcast, the inaugural podcast, I want to introduce this idea of abundance. Why talk about abundance? Why have I named this podcast Cornucopia? Why do I think that it's the most important question of our time?

I think we need to talk about abundance because we're experiencing this dramatic shift, a shift from a world of scarcity to a world of abundance, from a world in which we don't have enough, in which we're struggling to get more, to a world where we realize that we actually have plenty, and that getting more things is not our main problem anymore.

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 these fundamental needs. And then, when all these needs are solved, we are faced with a really different question: how are we going to live?

And I believe very strongly that we're in the middle of this transition. We are leaving this world of scarcity behind. We've already entered this new age of abundance, but this new world is really strange for us. All our strategies, all our habits, all our customs, all our patterns are still driven by this sense of scarcity, by the sense of struggle, by the sense of not having enough. They are old strategies. And we are taking these old patterns, these old strategies, into this new world of abundance, in which they don't work very well. And this, first of all, makes us really confused. We're confused because the old way of doing things doesn't work anymore, but we haven't figured out how to do it in a different way, how to address this abundance. So the main question is: how do we live abundantly?

And when we talk about this question of how to live abundantly, we realize that it touches on a lot of different fields, it involves a lot of different approaches. It's an economic question: how can we make sure that there's enough for everyone that we can be wealthy enough to live the way that we want to live? It's an ecological question about natural resources and the effects of human beings on the planet. It's a psychological question about always wanting more or whether we can have a sense of plenty. It's a question about the reasons that we have for our consumptions. Why do we consume? And at bottom, it's a philosophical question about the meaning of life. It's an existential question: who are we as humanity? What is the story of humanity? Why are we alive? And what happens to us when we are making the shift from survival to living?

So the plan for the podcast is to explore a different angle in each episode, to ask a different question on each of these walks. Why is there abundance in the first place? When we talk about a surplus of energy, a surplus of things, what do we mean? What do we mean, then,  by scarcity? What happens to the idea of scarcity and abundance when we're living through a pandemic, as we're living through now? Why do we need economic growth, and can we have economic growth without destroying the planet? Why do we consume, and how can we understand our reasons for consuming? What does it mean to be rich? Do we really know what it means to be rich? These are some of the questions I've been asking myself for a few years now actually, and which I want to explore with you on these walks. And we have plenty of walks ahead of us, so plenty of time to actually start thinking about these issues in more detail.


So on this first walk, I want to tell you three stories about the shift to abundance. A general story first about the history of humanity, a story about the frame of scarcity in the last few centuries, and the more personal story of how I got to thinking about these ideas. These are stories of course, right? So they are in a sense, simplifications. 

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

This process of human progress started accelerating about five centuries ago where the discovery of empires and travel across the seas and a global trading infrastructure. Then a couple of centuries later, with the beginning of the industrial revolution, you get the sense of power, you get coal, you get steam engines, you get a better understanding of nature through scientists, you get an infrastructure and a capacity to develop new technologies and speed up economic development. And this acceleration speeds up even more in the last 70 years, say, since the middle of the last century, when we've invented things like the computer and the internet. And so here we are today with 8 billion people on this planet. 

The remarkable thing about the history of our species and civilization 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 or two euros a day in today's money. And for most of history, everybody except for a tiny minority, which was maybe one or two percent of the population, was extremely poor, was living on that level . A couple of centuries ago, 90% of us were extremely poor. Halfway through the last century, in 1950, 50% were living on that level, and now it's about 10%. That's still almost a billion people, and far too many in a world that is so rich, that is so wealthy. And it's also true that half the population still lives on less than $10 a day. So there is a lot of work to be done. But look at this progress. This is completely undeniable, this progress in terms of wealth, this progress in terms of escaping this dire, extreme poverty.

And on the other hand, we've  created a life of health and wealth and ease and possibility for hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of people. And this, I think, is an amazing achievement that we should really be proud of. And we should be proud of this, even with the economic problems that we're facing today, the disparities between the poor and the rich, the ecological problems, the conflicts and wars that we have. All this is true. But at the same time, the progress we've made as humanity is undeniable.

So on this view, 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 plenty of people. We have democratized this wealth  and this health and this ease to an amazing degree.

And this, really, is a fundamental shift. What it means to be alive at the beginning of the 21st century is a very different thing from what it was to live at the beginning of the 20th century, or the beginning of the 16th century, or earlier in history. This leads to fundamental changes in the way in which we live our lives and the way we think about our lives. The overall story of humanity fundamentally is one of progress and of a shift to abundance


So the first story is a story of overall human progress, which speeds up enormously in the last few centuries, where we overcome this fundamental scarcity of goods and we usher in an age of abundance. But there's also a different story, which argues that the last few centuries, say the last 400 years since the 1600’s are a different time, a different frame in human history.

And the argument is that although we were always poor before, it's not always clear that we lived with a sense of scarcity. Because scarcity is not being poor. Scarcity is the feeling that there's not enough to go around. It's the feeling that you don't have enough, and so it has a lot to do with our expectations.

If we have no expectations about owning anything, or having any status, or having a healthy and wealthy life, then we don't really experience a sense of lack, we don't really experience a sense of scarcity. If you live in a very stable society, where everything is always going to remain the same, and history repeats itself, and your children and grandchildren are going to live the same life that you are living, then everybody knows their place. There is no comparison. And less comparison to others leads to less of a sense of scarcity. You are not missing anything because you don't know that you could miss anything. You don't have a sense of a   lack. 

And so the idea is that the massive changes in production and consumption, which we started with the industrial Revolution, with the beginning of the financial system and economic thinking,  is what 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 or for our children. 

We started leaving these villages and farming to go to the cities. We started working in factories, becoming working class with the aim of joining the middle class and perhaps even the upper class. And this idea of progress perhaps didn't exist before, say 1600. The reality of progress, but also the belief in progress and the belief in societal change started around that time. The belief that each generation would have it better than the one preceding it. And when you compare yourself to others, or when you compare yourself to your future self, it's much easier to be unhappy. It's much easier to focus on what you lack and to experience this feeling of scarcity: there is not enough.

The first story was that there's always been this shift to abundance, but that it was very slow for a long time, and then accelerated a few centuries ago, and accelerated again. But it's a movement in one direction; whereas this story argues that really before three or four hundred years ago, we didn't really have a sense of scarcity. So the very experience of scarcity is linked to this idea of wanting to grow, to have an economy, to mass market products, to sell them to each other, to advertise. And so on this view, this global production-consumption society in which we live today, the consumer society, is a result not just of increasing abundance, but also of increasing scarcity.

But even in the second story, we are seeing a shift. And this shift happened in the last few decades, mostly because of the digital revolution. We can now produce goods so cheaply, so plentifully, that we're reaching levels of saturation. We are having so much more of certain things than we'll ever need. We have truly been able to create this world of plenty with digital objects. And so the fundamental problem for these developed and advanced societies is no longer how to produce even more, but how to deal with this abundance. How do we create a social and economic system, which is based on this new abundance, which is no longer based on scarcity?

And this, really, is not so straightforward. Our current economic thinking, which is about four hundred years old, is based on the principle of scarcity. Economics, by definition, is the science which deals with the distribution of goods under the conditions of scarcity. Economics is: how do we distribute goods under conditions of scarcity? And so economics can't really deal with abundance. When something is abundant, it's basically free. And when something is free, it's not really part of an economic system. And so while this second story in historical terms is a lot shorter than the first one - it's only a few centuries instead of ten thousand years -, it goes a long way to explaining this kind of economic and social and political system that we live in today.

And here again, I think we need to make a shift. We need to make a shift from economics based on scarcity to economics based on abundance; a society based on scarcity to a society based on abundance; we need to make a shift from a world which is mired in scarcity to a world which is replete with abundance.

And so it's not just a shift in our capacity to produce and to consume. It's a mental shift. It's a shift in how we look at the world, how we perceive the world. It's a shift in our understanding of the world. It's a shift in the way that we act in the world, that we live our lives.


Now the third story is shorter again - at least in time - because it's the story of my own life and how I got to think about these questions of abundance. I'm 55 years old, but even as a child, I was really fascinated by what we call philosophical questions, and mostly: “why?”. Why is the world as it is, and why isn't it any different? As a kid, you can imagine completely different worlds, and somehow you're stuck in this one. Could the world have evolved in a completely different way?

I was really fascinated by questions about the natural world: how does gravity work? About the laws of physics, about the history of the universe, but also about our social world, the world that we've constructed together. Why did we make the school system the way we did? Why did I have to go to school and sit all these hours listening to people telling me about stuff? How does money work? Why are some people poor and some people rich, nd what is the role of property? Why are we sometimes happy and are we sometimes unhappy? Is it caused by something external, or is it caused by something in us? What, in the end, makes us happy in this life? So they're big questions for a young person, but they're exciting  questions and I still feel the excitement in these questions today.

So with these kind of questions, you can imagine that it makes sense to go and study philosophy. So I studied philosophy at the University of Sussex, in Brighton in England. I went to do my graduate work at The Pennsylvania State University in America. Then, I went to Japan because I got interested in Eastern philosophy, I studied at the University of Kyoto, I taught at University of Kobe. 

While I was really enjoying this teaching of students and all these questions and writing articles, I also felt something was missing from this academic life. And so in the late 1990s, in my early thirties, I had the opportunity to work on a United Nations project about global issues. And this really opened my mind, because for the first time I could see that philosophy could have an influence on the outside world. For the first time, we could really think about problems on a global scale. 

There are a lot of these global problems, of course, but two problems really stood out for me. The first one was the economic problem of global poverty. The question I had as a kid, why are some people poor and some people rich? And the ecological problem, which twenty years ago, was more about pollution and species loss and the beginnings of climate change.

And so my initial idea was that both of these problems were caused by fundamental scarcity. So economically, not everybody can be rich because there just isn't enough to go around for everybody. There isn't enough to make everybody wealthy. And from an ecological perspective, there aren't enough natural resources to make everybody rich, to make everybody wealthy. And so from that perspective, philosophically, you could argue for restraint:  let's be careful with all the stuff that we use in the world. And in my first writings on the subject, I was really arguing for an understanding of ecological limits.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my frame of reference was wrong. That by thinking that we live in a world of scarcity, I was applying the wrong frame to the situation. Historically, it didn't make sense: we don't live in a scarce world. Conceptually, it didn't make sense: the structure of the universe and the  structure of life is one of abundance, not of scarcity. In terms of human ambition and human potential and how people want to live their lives, it didn't make sense. People don't want the smallest thing possible. They're ambitious. They have dreams, they want to do things. So the fundamental realization I had then is,: what if we stop looking at this problem, if we stop approaching this problem from a perspective of scarcity, but approach it from a perspective of abundance instead?

And that was a really powerful moment. It was really like a sort of philosophical epiphany. And so for the last 25 years, I've been developing this philosophy of abundance. How can we think from a perspective of abundance, how can we think from a frame of abundance? How do we change from a frame of scarcity, from a psychology of scarcity, to a psychology of abundance? How can we develop an economics of abundance? So I wrote a few versions of a book, which ended up being published, and which you'll be surprised to hear is called Abundance. And in order to spread this idea, I've also given a number of lectures; there are some online courses; and then of course there's this podcast. 

And the idea of the podcast, of these walks that we take together, of the time that we have on each of these walks, in each of these episodes, is to explore this issue, this general issue of the shift to abundance, to ask ourselves the question of how we can live abundantly, but to do it with these questions about what it means to be rich, about why we consume, about ecological production, about the climate problem. I think each time I would like to take one topic or one issue and go on a walk with you and explore this.

Sometimes we'll touch upon economic issues. Sometimes we'll talk about ecology. There will be psychological issues, there will be philosophical issues, maybe even spiritual issues. I think we need all of these things together to make sense of this fundamental shift. And so that's why I called this podcast Cornucopia. Cornucopia, which is the Horn of Plenty in Latin, and which is another word for abundance.

So this podcast is really an invitation to explore these ideas together, to think about what it means to live at the beginning of the 21st century. Is it possible for us to make a shift towards abundance on an individual level? Can we make it as communities? Can we get organizations and companies to think of this shift to abundance? Can we do so on a global level?

Can we make a shift from a world ruled by struggle and competition and strife to a world of sharing and plenty, where the kind of health and wealth and freedom to make choices that hundreds of millions and perhaps billions of people experience today, how can we make that available to all the people on the planet?  Can we have a thriving humanity on a thriving planet? I think that is a question worth exploring. And if this sounds like too much of a utopia, don't worry, there are still gonna be a lot of problems left. Even when you have all these possibilities, how do you live your life? 

 So I hope you're gonna join me on our next episodes of Cornucopia, on our next walks. Thanks for listening.