Cornucopia

02 The surplus

December 15, 2021 Karim Benammar Episode 2
Cornucopia
02 The surplus
Show Notes Transcript

The surplus - all the energy we have in excess of what we require to stay alive - is the driving force of human progress and civilisations, of all life on this planet, and of our vast universe. How can we understand and use the surplus?

Welcome to Cornucopia, the podcast where we examine the shift to abundance. My name is Karim Benammar, and in today's episode let's look at the surplus. What is the surplus, what does it do, what are the consequences of having a surplus for life, and for our own lives, and how can we make use of the surplus?

First of all, what is the surplus? The surplus is a driving force for life - plant life, animal life, human life. It's a driving force for civilisation and the build-up of societies; it’s a driving force for growth - global growth, communal growth, individual growth - it’s an essential driving force of life. 

Why do we call it the surplus, what does the word ‘surplus’ mean? Surplus is a synonym for excess, for what is spare - what you have too much, more than you need. It's a French term: ‘sur-plus’. ‘Sur’ means ‘over’ and ‘plus’ means ‘more’, so it's over and above what you need, it’s the excess.

The term ‘surplus’ gets used in economics a lot: when you have a surplus on the balance, you sell more than you buy, you have more coming in than going out. Your bank balance can have a surplus or it can have a deficit. A deficit is less than you need, or less than zero. A surplus is more than you need, more than zero, or more than the balance point - whatever your balance point is. 

The surplus is not just a technical concept. It is a force, it is an energy. I believe that it’s the fundamental energy of life, and it's a driver of progress and civilisation and growth. I think that it's important that we understand it, that we see where it comes from, but most of all that we understand what it does, and how we can make use of it, how we can surf the    surplus like a wave.

The reason for starting the second episode with this idea of surplus, the reason I wanted to talk about it right after the introduction, is that it's really one of the core ideas we need to understand in order to see the shift to abundance. If our question is: how we are going to make this shift to abundance - globally, communally, individually, how are we going to live abundantly? - then I think we must be convinced that there is something driving this abundance, something which makes life itself abundant. There are plenty of people - I would say a large majority of thinkers today - who doubt this, doubt, who question this.  

Where should we start? You can start anywhere really, because every aspect of life has this sense of surplus. You can start with a really large cosmological picture of solar energy hitting the planet. You can talk about how life on earth grows, about plants and animals including humans. You can talk about the history of humanity. But you can also talk about what a community or a country or a group of people can achieve, and you can talk about what it means for an individual person. That's pretty cool, right? You can link the cosmic scale of solar energy and even the whole universe to your own experience of being alive right now, at this moment, as you are listening to this. 

Across all these scales, there is a constant surplus. Why am I so certain of this? Well, if there wasn't a surplus, the system could not have kept going. It would have stopped long ago. Everything from your life to human history to the history of planet Earth to the solar system to the universe: all of it depends for its continued existence in time on this surplus. 

[music]

Let's start with our lives - and then we can move back to the bigger picture of the universe. We human beings are capable of generating more energy than we require in order to survive. If we generated less energy, if we had a deficit and that deficit continued, and if that deficit was in the form of calories -  that’s energy - we would just starve. Our bodies would cease to function; we would cease to exist. If we were to break even in terms of energy, there would be no change. We would spend all our time and all our energy just to produce enough energy, just to get enough calories to feed ourselves - and we would never have any spare, never any excess, never any surplus. 

Of course, for almost every one of us, that is not the case. The amount of time and energy that we spend to get the calories that we need to survive comes to just a fraction of our day. On some level this has always been the case: when we were hunter-gatherers, we didn't spend all day hunting or gathering. We had time to make shelters, we had time to cook food, we had time for stories, for art, for leisure, for games, for play, for love, for war. Our human experience of life has never really been, except in some very extraordinary circumstances, an experience of a deficit or even of breaking even. 

Of course, there have been global famines in history, where, for one reason or another, we couldn’t produce a surplus. Sometimes because there wasn't enough food, but famines usually happen because of natural disasters or war. There are also individuals who, because of age, or because of physical or mental limitations cannot produce a surplus for themselves. They depend on the energy produced by others, by the community. In this case, it is the surplus of the community which allows these people to be taken care of. And in the case of famines, it’s also the surplus of the global community which can attempt to deliver food aid. 

We don't need to go step by step through the history of human beings since we were hunter-gatherers, through the rise and fall of great civilisations, to the industrial revolution and the great acceleration of the 20th century. We did that in the last episode. But you can see that the amount of surplus is growing throughout history, and that it keeps accelerating. We only need to work a few hours a week to produce enough food to survive. We only need a small percentage percent of the population to work in farming to produce the physical energy needed by everyone. All the rest is surplus.

Now of course some of that surplus goes to housing and utilities, to healthcare, to transport, and to our other needs. And it is also true that today - whether you're talking about rich countries or poor countries - there are a lot of people who struggle to make ends meet. They may not feel that there is a surplus, especially if they are suffering from a financial deficit. Many people indeed have such small buffers that if any crisis befalls them, things can go from bad to worse very quickly. 

But I'm not talking about a financial surplus. I’m talking about a surplus of energy.  I'm talking about a surplus of life. Even people who are struggling financially - and certainly the people who are not struggling financially - have an immense surplus in terms of energy. They still have a variety of food and drink to choose from, different clothes to wear, access to education, to the Internet, to music and films and entertainment of all sorts. Even if you're not well off, you have a lot of time on your hands. Most of us don't need spend all our waking hours struggling in order to survive. 

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that everybody is well off financially. That is something I think we should strive for, that is something which I think is possible. But we are not there yet. It will depend on our creativity, our sense of distribution, our sense of generosity - and we will talk in upcoming episodes about what it means to be rich. I'm speaking in terms of energy balance. In the past, life was a struggle, a struggle to survive. It is still a struggle for about half the global population, and it’s also a struggle - albeit on a different level - for many in wealthy countries. 

The other half of the global population, the half that is doing increasingly well, proves that it doesn't have to be a struggle. They have enormous surpluses: surpluses of food, surpluses of goods, surpluses of experiences, surpluses of possibilities, and also financial surpluses. The fact that humans create surpluses is natural. It's natural for any animal system to create a surplus, and to use the surplus in any which way it wants to. The surplus is always ready to be spent, to be used up. We could even say that it's wasted from the point of view of utility. In a sense, all the extra food you eat that doesn't serve to keep you alive is not necessary - if you have a very strict definition of what is necessary. The creation and the experience of the surplus is really the fundamental human condition.

[music]

Let's think for a moment about the things that threaten this surplus. First, of course, natural disasters. Floods and droughts destroy crops, earthquakes destroy human lives and infrastructure, volcanic eruptions can change our climate. These natural disasters do not add to the surplus, they subtract from it. Natural disasters regularly set back humanity. 

Then of course there's disease: viruses and bacteria which, though they are not consciously out to get us, certainly have a huge impact on our survival, and on our joy in life. This is something that is not very difficult to explain to people in the middle of a global pandemic. We are now all too aware of the havoc that a small virus which crosses the species barrier can wreck on the human population. The cost in human life, the economic cost, and the level of global disruption caused by the virus is staggering.

Then there's war. Human beings need to organise their surplus, so they need to decide what belongs to whom, what piece of land, what possessions, what rights. They don't always agree on this, to put it mildly. A lot of our surplus energy, of our spare energy has traditionally been used for war. Young men who are trained to use their excess energy to fight. Sometimes as a game, and sometimes as conquest. You also need a significant surplus in order to wage war in the first place: if you need all your energy to produce enough food to survive, you don't have the spare strength to fight. A society must organise itself to support an army or a warrior class, to spend money on all kinds of weapons. Wars have always been incredibly expensive to wage.

And wars of course are extremely destructive: they destroy human lives, they destroy infrastructure, they destroy the economy. Once you've had a war, you need to start from scratch, you need to rebuild, and you've been pushed back in your progress. Wars have been omnipresent in human history. On some accounts, if we look back at the last 3,000 years, we've been at war for 90% of that time. We've kept pushing our progress back, again and again.

We can think of it as a balance sheet. There is the surplus, the energy of life that makes all life grow, and then there are the things that stop that growth, or that reduce that growth: natural disasters, disease, war. And that leaves one final one - literally the final one - death.  The structure of biological life is that it has a beginning, a flourishing, and an end. Part of the biological surplus is that there is a surplus of life, of beings which are born, live, and die, which are rotated through time as it were. One way to put it is to say that life is energy expending itself in time. Energy expends itself in time. Experiencing this surplus energy in time is our life. To put it this way may be quite mysterious, or even mystical. It might take a while to get used to thinking about it in this way, and we will get back to it, but at least I wanted to mention it today: life is energy expending itself in time.

[music] 

Let's make a quick detour through the universe and the solar system, and then wrap up with the fundamental question of what we can do with this surplus. The universe is also energy expanding itself in time. We believe the universe started with a Big Bang, that somehow all the energy was concentrated in something that was not much larger than the head of a pin. Size is a bit weird because space didn’t exist, and time didn't exist. But anyway, there was some initial event, some sort of very, very, rapid expansion through which matter and space and time were created. Now we think that happened about 14 billion years ago; people are still tweaking that number. 

Fourteen billion years is a long time. And, to get a sense of the vastness of the universe, we believe there are 100 billion stars in a galaxy - so 15 times as many stars in the galaxy as there are people on earth. And we believe there may be 100 billion of these galaxies of 100 billion stars each. We even adjusted that number recently - we believe we have three times as many. Now our place in all of this is that we are living on a planet that is orbiting one of the se stars. Not a very important star, not even a very important galaxy: we’re not really at the centre of anything. 

Our star, the sun, exists because of the cosmological surplus of the universe, because that initial energy expanded in time. And we exist because of the surplus of the sun. The sun is a star that is shooting out photons - which are light - through a fusion reaction. Those photons are also energy. The energy that hits the planet with the right combination of chemical elements and an atmosphere has led to the emergence of life: plant life, then animal life, culminating from our perspective in a monkey that came down from the trees, developed this massive brain, and eventually gained consciousness of its own existence. And as we move from prehistory to history, the monkey got organised in tribes and nations, started agriculture, science, technology, caused industrial and commutation revolutions, and here we are. Linking the universe to our existence is the work of what is called Big History. There's a really wonderful TED talk by David Christian which I highly recommend. In 12 minutes, he will take you from the beginnings of the universe to our current existence in a really masterful way. 

But I'm telling you this story because I want to focus on the surplus element in all of this. All of this is only possible because of surplus energy. None of this would have been possible without surplus energy. And yes, there are upheavals on a tremendous scale: stars will die out, turn into white dwarfs or black holes or supernovas. The universe is a place of constant change, and it is still expanding. Our solar system is reasonably stable but will eventually shift. And our planet of course is constantly shifting on a geological level: hundreds of millions of years ago there was only one super-continent on Earth, and the continents are drifting today.

There's the well-known upheaval of the extinction of the dinosaurs, which we believe was caused by a meteor hitting the planet. This extinction created an opportunity for mammals, and thus for our own evolution. In the evolution of humans, there have been different kinds of hominids, of human apes: we are just one of the branches that survived and became dominant. And of course, there's all the upheavals of history, with great civilisations rising and decaying and disappearing, and new players coming on the scene. This process, as we discussed last time, was given an enormous boost by scientific inventions and technological development, by our increasing mastery of energy, of atoms, of codes - such as genetic codes - and so on. 

I'm bringing up this cosmological description and this history of the universe and the solar system and planet Earth and eventually humans, to point out that surplus was the key element in all of this. We need to realise that the surplus is natural - if by natural we mean that this is what the world, the universe, and existence is. The surplus is the driving force of existence. It’s a core concept of what life itself, and our experience of life is. 

[music]

So when we ask: why would there be abundance? Why believe that human life is abundant? Well, the overwhelming reason for abundance is the surplus. This is not just my opinion, this is not some strange belief that I have about existence or human beings. The surplus is what life is, the surplus is what our existence is, the surplus is what we are as human beings.

And so, we should really turn the question around. Instead of questioning abundance, we should ask: why is there scarcity in the world? How is it possible, if life itself comes from surplus, if it continues to generate an abundance of energy, of solar radiance, of life, that we experience scarcity, lack, and a sense of never having enough? 

Now some of these setbacks, as we have seen, are natural: geological or climate upheavals. Others are human made, they are artificial: wars, conflicts, and famines. But the remaining struggles that we experience globally - and there is still an enormous amount of struggle - is not because of a lack of energy, of surplus, of opportunity, of potential. It is because we haven't found a way to channel that surplus energy in a productive way, in a way which would give us all an opportunity to thrive, to live an interesting life. And it is also, deep down, because we don’t believe in this abundance.

Our challenges at times seem overwhelming. We are surrounded by crises: the climate crisis, the economic crisis, the conflict crisis, the human crisis, the current pandemic. And it seems that there is no way out. But here again, I believe we should really turn the question around: the obvious path, the natural path, the path of life is a path of surplus, of abundance, of possibility. A crisis and an upheaval - whatever shape it takes, whatever scale   - is just a temporary setback.

Disasters can happen on a communal level, or on a national level. Countries go to war, suffer economic depression or hardship. Life can be difficult for many. Sometimes the challenges are at the global scale, such as the current pandemic or the climate crisis. And of course, we also experience these upheavals and crises on an individual level. We can become sick, we can have accidents. There can be all kinds of setbacks in the things we want to do in our lives. But, in the larger picture, all of these are really the exception, all of these are really temporary setbacks in a story of expanding energy, of expanding surplus, of expanding life: a story of abundance.

As a consequence, I believe that we should ask different questions. Not: how are we going to survive? - but: how are we going to thrive? How are we going to use the surplus of energy, of human energy, possibility, and potential to invent, to create, to build the kind of society that we want to live in, that we want to thrive in, that we want to explore? How are we going to do this on a communal level, how are we going to do this on a national level, and how are we going to do this on a global level? And how are we going to do it in our own individual lives? Because at the end of the day, the only direct experience of life we have is of our own life. We are energy expending itself in time. Our lives consist of trying to make sense of what that experience is.

So, when you look up at the stars, when you wonder about the unfathomable vastness of the universe and the energy that it represents, and link that to your own brain perceiving this vastness at this very moment and of you being aware of it, I think you've come full circle with the surplus of existence, with the surplus of life. Enjoy, and we will see you on the next episode of Cornucopia. 

Now as a bibliographical footnote, many of the ideas I talked about today are based on the work of the French thinker and writer Georges Bataille, and we will talk more about him in subsequent episodes.