03 What is scarcity?

December 15, 2021 Karim Benammar Episode 3
03 What is scarcity?
Show Notes Transcript

Scarcity is a formula between needs and resources, but it leads to powerful emotions of fear and to struggle. We feel it in our lives and on a global ecological scale. How can we recognize and overcome our scarcity mindset?

Welcome to Cornucopia, the podcast in which we examine the shift to abundance. My name is Karim Benammar, and in today's episode let’s talk about scarcity,  the opposite of abundance. 

While I might talk about the potential for abundance, the possibility of abundance, for many people the experience of life, the reality of life, the way they look at life is a sense of deep-seated scarcity: the feeling that there isn't enough. There isn't enough now, and there will not be enough in the future. People need and want more things for a comfortable life, for a secure life, or for their children, and these things are just not available for everybody.

There is also a more global ecological fear that there aren't enough natural resources on this planet to give everybody a comfortable life. There are limits, we are overshooting these limits, and therefore there is a sense of an absolute scarcity. We believe that the one planet that we have is not enough, because we are consuming several planets’ worth of resources at the moment. We believe there is thus a fundamental scarcity of natural resources.

So, let us look at scarcity. What is it exactly? How do we define it? Scarcity, this idea that there is not enough, that there's not going be enough in the future can be thought of as a relationship. A relationship between what's available - let’s call that our resources - and what our needs or wants are - but let’s just call them needs. In a situation where the available resources are smaller, or a lot smaller than your needs, you have a situation of scarcity. Conversely, in a situation where your resources are larger or a lot larger than your needs, you have a situation of abundance. A situation of overflow, the experience that there is so much more than you need at the moment. Abundance comes from ab-unda, from the Latin. It's means the overflow of the water, literally. My cup runneth over. 

We can also think of it as the balance. In a surplus situation, you have more in your account: more money, or more things. More than zero, or more than a balance point: you have an excess. Scarcity, on the other hand, is a deficit, it's a lack. You will have less than zero, or less than your balance point, perhaps even less than your survival point. 

And because our survival is at stake, you can imagine that we care deeply and viscerally about scarcity. If we have a scarcity of food, if we don't have enough food to survive, we might last a few weeks. If we don't have enough water, a few days. If we don't have enough air to breathe, a few minutes. There are crucial things that human beings need, and if they are not available in a plentiful manner, our survival is at risk.

In this pandemic, of course, we've experienced a scarcity of vaccines. Vaccines can only be produced at a certain speed. Rich countries have bought up these vaccines, and there is very little left for countries with less economic or political clout. We've also decided not to share the know-how and the patents and the recipes for these  vaccines, so we are actively creating scarcity in this case.  


Scarcity is not just a formal relationship between needs and resources, or a balance which is either positive or negative. Scarcity is also a feeling: the feeling that there isn't enough, that there isn’t enough to go around. Something is precious because it is rare, because it is scarce, because it is exclusive.

When there are not enough things to go around, you can see how this could lead to struggle. A struggle to get our share, or to get what we need. Fights for food may break out during famines, and in our spoilt world, we have fights over the newest gadget that is being presented in a limited edition. The mechanism is the same: the fear of missing out, the fear of being left behind, the fear of suffering - whether it's a real life-and-death situation or a more symbolic experience of missing out on something exclusive. This fear is very strong. 

It's the same with global ecological scarcity. The idea that there aren't enough resources globally gives people a sense of fear: we are depleting the earth and the seas, we are causing extinction events, we are causing climate change, and so on. Again, we are engaged in a fight for these resources, not just with other people but also with the planet itself. We are engaged in the struggle with nature. 

And so the feeling of scarcity, and the experience of scarcity are associated with struggle. A struggle to survive, a struggle to get our share, a struggle against others, a struggle against the planet, a struggle against nature. What makes it even worse is the feeling that there is not just scarcity now, but there will also be scarcity in the future. There's not enough of what we need now, and things are running out, so there is even less chance of getting enough in the future. We're engaged in negative spiral of increasing fear and increasing struggle. And all this emotion is caused by a perceived imbalance in the relationship between resources and our needs.

Now, apart from a scarcity of goods and money and this planetary feeling of ecological scarcity, there is also a third element which increases scarcity: status and status anxiety. Status is the place where you stand, it’s your standing in a group. This is something that we will come back to in more detail in coming episodes, but for now let's say simply that human beings want to conform to the group - because they want to be part of the group - but they also want to stand out from the group, they want to be an individual. This paradoxical need to at the same time belong to the group, but stand out from the group makes status crucial. We establish our position in the group through status.

In the past, there were probably far fewer status games because status was established at birth: you were born a peasant or a merchant or a noble person. Since your status was determined by birth, there was very little possibility for movement. But now, we live in societies in which people are officially equal, and everybody supposedly starts from the same beginning. We have started believing that status is acquired by merit: if you work hard and use your talents, then you can achieve anything you want, you can achieve any status you want. 

Status can be measured in money: you can become wealthy as proof that you worked hard and have done well. Status can be measured in titles, whether they are academic titles, or honorific titles, or prizes. And status can be measured in positions: you can become a director, or a CEO or even Prime Minister. So, we can identify three causes of scarcity: scarcity of money or goods, a global ecological scarcity, and scarcity caused by status. 


So, we have looked at scarcity as formal relationship, a formula that involves our needs and our resources. We have seen that scarcity leads to strong emotions: to a feeling of apprehension, to fear, and to struggle. And scarcity is also a mental frame: it's a way of seeing the world, it's a way of experiencing the world, it’s a way of living in the world. If we believe there is scarcity, if we feel the fear and struggle of scarcity, then we also think there is scarcity, we develop a scarcity mindset. We see scarcity everywhere, and we start believing there is scarcity wherever you look. 

In this sense, scarcity is not out there in the world, but scarcity comes from the way we look at the world. That's why we call it a scarcity mindset: our mind is set to think in a certain way. Think of it as a frame, as a set of glasses: we are wearing scarcity glasses when we look at the world. And we are wearing these scarcity glasses communally, we are wearing these scarcity glasses globally.

I'm fascinated by this idea of a scarcity mindset. It’s something that we are not aware of, it's something that has become so automatic that we don't notice it. We have been stuck in this frame of scarcity, perhaps for a few centuries, and we are not aware of this, or insufficiently aware of this. If we were to become aware of it, if we were to ask: where does this scarcity view, this scarcity perspective, this scarcity thinking come from? -  then we would realise that it's just one of the ways of looking at the world, just one way one way to act in the world, just one way to think about the world.

If we could shift from thinking in terms of scarcity to thinking in terms of abundance, to taking a different perspective by looking at the world through different frames, we would actually see different things, and we could act differently. We could shift our emotions away from fear and struggle. Our feelings can change when our mind changes; our mind can also change with our feelings change. These two interact with each other. And even the “reality” in the world, the reality of how we deal with resources can change because of our feelings and because of our mindset.


In the first episode, I introduced two stories about abundance. One story was that the world has always been poor, and we have only recently become richer, so we still need to get used to living in abundance. The other story was that there wasn't really a perception of scarcity or abundance until about 300 years ago. The idea of scarcity started to take hold as part of the Industrial Revolution, with the beginning of mass production, and it became stronger in the 20th century, with the development of advertising and our desire for ever more consumer goods. 

The notion of scarcity is also central to the development of modern economics, which is also about 300 years old. The definition of economics is the science that examines the distribution of goods under conditions of scarcity. When goods are scarce, we need to find a way to distribute them. With scarce land, scarce housing, and scarce goods, we have to find a mechanism for the distribution, for the allocation of these scarce goods. Economics presents us with different theories about how to do this.

Economics traditionally hasn't really dealt with abundance, because there was never really a situation of abundance. Everything that was abundant in the past, like air or water, was considered free: it has no price. There was no price mechanism to allocate abundant goods because they did not need to be allocated: there was more than enough for everyone.

Economics by its own definition can't deal with abundance. And this is starting to become a problem. With the advent of the digital world, we've been able to make copies at almost no cost. Many things which are digital are essentially free, and so it is difficult to price them. We need to price them through an artificial form of exclusivity or scarcity, for example by claiming copyright, or by restricting access though paid subscriptions.

It's not just digital goods. We have also gotten very good at producing objects very cheaply. When we make things cheaply, we are destroying economic value, and so we have to think in terms of branding or exclusivity so that people will keep paying a much higher price. And as we're shifting to a world of abundance through the development of technology, through the production of ever-cheaper goods, and the digital world, we are going to have to develop an economics of abundance, a way to calculate the value of things which are plentiful, which are abundant, and which have very little economic value in the current way of thinking.

 And so, I believe that one of the reasons the scarcity mindset is so pervasive, is that it's part of our economic mindset. Our economic mindset rules the world: most of the decisions we make about allocating resources and products are based on the idea of monetary value. And monetary value itself is based to a large extent on scarcity, on perceived scarcity. In a way we come full circle here: because we see things as scarce, we can assign a value to them, but because they have value, they are perceived as scarce. If you get a sense that this circular reasoning, you're right, because of it is. 

This can lead to unfortunate situations where we could create goods or do something for people, but we don't because we can't make money doing it, we can't create value out of the situation. In this case, there is not enough real or perceived scarcity. If we take scarcity as the only way to assign value, we are leaving an awful lot of valuable things out.


In this episode, we've touched on different aspects of scarcity. The formal aspect, as a relationship between needs and resources. The emotional aspect of fear and struggle. The mindset aspect of scarcity, including this economic frame which is so pervasive in our world. If we take all of this into consideration, we can see why many people believe that there is not enough to go around, and that they have this experience that there is not enough to go around. And why they are afraid for the future, because they don’t believe there will be enough in the future either.

To sum up: we experience the world as scarce, we feel scarcity, we think in terms of scarcity, and we believe that scarcity is a natural situation. We believe that this is all there is, and that this just isn't enough. All of this focus on scarcity stops us from seeing the reality of the surplus in life. It stops us from looking at the world through a frame of abundance. It stops us from experiencing abundance and the feelings associated with abundance. And it stops us from creating physical abundance by forging a new relationship between needs and resources. 

This, I believe, is our core problem: life is abundant, but we are stuck in a frame of scarcity. This is an experiential frame, a psychological frame, a cognitive frame, a frame of belief. We are looking at an abundant world through scarcity glasses. So how do we take off these scarcity glasses? How do we try on abundance glasses? That's what we will be exploring in   the coming episodes. Hope you'll join us on the next time on Cornucopia.