The philosophy of abundance and generosity: how should we live in wealthy times, when the strategies for survival developed in times of scarcity are no longer effective? How do we choose now that we have so much choice? How do we find out how we really want to work and live?

The science of economics is predicated on scarcity and infinite individual desires. Our hyper-consumption, now temporarily halted by a crisis, comes from applying the old strategy of hoarding to a new situation of abundant material goods. And yet the natural world suffers from our rapacious and insatiable need for resources.

But the essence of human life is abundance, a surplus of energy working itself out in time. This means that the fundamental human problem is not how to make a living, but how to spend our lives. The economist John Maynard Keynes foresaw the end of the economic problem, and the need to endow our lives with meaning. According to the French thinker Georges Bataille, we can spend our surplus catastrophically, in war and destruction, or gloriously, in art and eroticism. What are the consequences of a perspective of abundance and surplus, of expenditure instead of hoarding, for our lives and for our relationship to nature today?

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The joy of consumption

Walk down the isles of a large supermarket in any city in the developed world, and you are faced with an enormous variety of products. Bread from grains shipped across the ocean, exotics fruits picked in faraway countries, processed products made of oils, grains, sugars, cocoa; a variety of meats, fishes, cheeses; tinned cans and powdered soups; chemical products ranging from detergents to toothpaste, cutlery and tools for the house; animal foods, magazines. These products have been brought by ship and air, and trucked in the remaining distance, just as you have probably driven to the supermarket in your own car. You pay by debit card, a system made possible by a stable currency, a developed banking infrastructure, and a computerized network.

Supermarket shopping is the paradigmatic feature of life at the beginning of the 21st century. We fly halfway around the earth, are connected to the Internet with our computers, have entertainment systems at our beck and call. For a minority of humans, technological development, coupled with a capitalistic economic system, provides for all imaginable creature comforts.

In terms of choices, our lives are also rich to a degree unimaginable to our grandparents. Hooked up to our music systems, we can listen to any symphony, to jazz, or to a million popular songs. The most modest of libraries contains more books than we can ever read, a corner video store more films than we would care to watch. We can travel almost anywhere at the speed of our choosing, visit exotic places that would have required a well-organized and financed expedition a century ago, feel at home in a dozen countries, stay abreast of sport and spectacle on the other side of the planet. We have the social freedom to determine our trade or occupation, to choose our schooling, the place we wish to live, whether to marry or to have children, how to spend our free time. We put ever more resources and energy in spending free time, with ever more elaborate sports, theme parks as whole alternative virtual communities, with ever more divertissement for our jaded lifestyles1.

The technophile utopian in us can dream of a world more fantastic still, of more comfort, more elaborate choices, of access to the totality of the world’s entertainment resources from anywhere, of the ability to transform one’s body at will, to have perfect eyes, perfect teeth and perfect noses, of the disappearance of the last creature discomforts such a colds, viruses, and the tedium of distance. Where among us is the Futurist to herald the birth of this world of plenty, the author of a Manifesto to the glory of the manipulability of the human body and the human world2?

Lingering doubts

The system that provides us with these creature comforts, judged by its output of products and the feverish consumption it engenders, is phenomenally successful. Yet amidst all this wealth, surrounded by all the stuff we buy and the enjoyment it brings, we rarely feel satisfied, or filled with a sense of the abundance of life. A perennial feeling of scarcity lingers amidst our achievements and consumption.

This feeling of scarcity may come from the constant realization, as you are walking through the supermarket, that your budget is limited, that you do not buy for your every whim. Even with a very large amount of money at your disposal, you can only experience one thing at a time: confronted with the enormous amount of choices for holiday destinations, you will have to choose. Every road taken relegates countless others to unlived experiences3. Our desires may also seem endless; however much we have, we cannot escape the feeling that this is less that we would want, less than we feel entitled to, less than our neighbour or colleague has. Much of our desire finds its source not in what we want, but from our desire to keep up with the Jones’s.

Laden with bags full of supermarket loot, our pleasure is further diminished by guilt at the inequalities of the economic system. The old age pensioner checking out in front of us with a few miserable groceries carefully picked from sale items, and the tramp begging for the return coin of our supermarket trolley bring home the inequality among citizens of the wealthiest nations. The growing gap between the have and the have-nots witnessed in the last decades in the developed world has resulted in ever more ostentatious consumption on the part of the world’s super-rich, the world of large yachts, race cars, and exclusive couture. The winners live worlds apart from the growing number of those who find themselves slipping back into the kind of misery that the welfare state had sought to alleviate: poor food choices, squalor, and children going to bed hungry. The rich are ever more spoilt for choice, while the poor have to experience their poverty in full realization of their poverty by watching the rich and famous on television, and in the constant anxiety caused by the myth that their station is no longer the result of birth but of their own failure4.

The reflective consumer may also realise the larger inequalities of the globalized economy, may know that the chosen exotic fruits are grown as cash crops in the developing world, taking the place of food production for the local population. Coffee and cocoa growers may get so little for their produce that their effort is not much better than indentured labour. Much of the plastics, shoes, and electronics of reputable brands are made in hazardous sweatshops by exploited workers5. Even if all the goods were produced in such a way as to benefit local development, it is obvious that the richness of our supermarket experience comes from the clout that large food conglomerates have on the world market. We enjoy our vast cornucopia of goods at the expense of others whose toil and misery produces our pleasure.

On the way out of the supermarket, we will be confronted by posters depicting starving African children asking our contribution to alleviate their plight. With one eye on the delightful foods in our trolley, it will be heard not to feel pangs of guilt at our good fortune, and silent rage at the inequalities of a system which allows these two realities to exist side by side. The promised land of plenty appears to be available only to those lucky or deserving enough to belong to the chosen caste. We come to the realization that this level of wealth is not a state that could be achieved by all of humanity, but will forever be reserved for those at the top. Historically, it has been the preserve of the free citizens of Athens, the Roman elite, the landowners, the bourgeois, or the capitalists. On this reading of history, the distribution of available resources is always a struggle between the haves and the have-nots, and the wealth enjoyed shamelessly by the haves requires a larger number of have-nots stuck in an inescapable poverty trap.

Finally, with a glance at the amount of plastic packaging we throw away as soon as we get home, we will be reminded of the ecological consequences of our consumption frenzy. We are not using materials that are either plentiful or harmless. Our PET bottles, for example, are moulded for a single use but will easily outlive several generations of our descendants. We may thus live with the fear that this happy state of overproduction and bountiful surplus will just constitute a short interval of bounty before our wasteful ways catch up with us and force us back into a natural state of scarcity. Our consumption patterns seem destined to lead to our oil running out, causing energy prizes to skyrocket. We release many harmful toxins in our natural cycles which will have devastating effects for our food chain and on our health, including our reproductive process6. Through global warming, we may radically and irrecoverably alter the conditions of our planet, flood the coastlines where we have built many of our cities, scorch or freeze our temperate climates. We seem to live with the dim realization that the shameless exploitation of the Earth’s resources is bound to catch up with us some day. We might also want to blame the population explosion in the last century, believe fervently that the Earth’s bounty which we so eagerly consume cannot support the six billion humans alive today in a comfortable lifestyle, much less so the eight billion that will inhabit our strained planet fifty years hence, or the twelve billion that we will desperately seek to sustain before the system, as we predict now, will collapse around us7.

If all these effects of our consumption spring to mind, we may not feel very wealthy after all at the end of our shopping. We may feel that our wealth is shallow, that it is based on an endless string of desires that we could not possibly fulfil. The harder we work and the more things we buy, the less rich we feel. Our pleasure is diminished by our feelings of guilt that our level of affluence is not shared with others, whether they are our immediate neighbours or distant cousins. We fear that our present consumer binge is unsustainable and will come to grief, and feel powerless to stop it. The modern consumer, moreover, is harried for time, likely to get caught in a traffic jam returning from the supermarket, is confronted by a multitude of demands arising from the ever-increasing speed of life, forced to choose between the vast array of possibilities, and thus not feel particularly blessed at standing the apogee of wealth. How, then, can we truly feel rich?

Two metaphors for life

Which of these two conflicting feelings – that we are kings luxuriating in an abundant world that can provide for our every whim – or that the world is a place of scarce resources for which there is an unequal competition, is the right one? Are we right to revel in our nature as luxurious animals who have attained, through our intellect, our mastery over nature, our democratic societies and capitalist economic system, the supreme achievement of wealth? Are we to bask in the glow of the knowledge that we are now pushing at the very boundaries of life, perhaps soon capable of rejuvenating our cells and lengthening human life, genetically engineer ourselves so as to eradicate hereditary diseases, capable of endless progress in making life as we know it ever more pleasurable? Or is it rather correct to say that we that we are reckless in our growth, that the world we have created is a place of shameless exploitation of the have-nots by the haves, of naked and unending power games? Will our future be scarred by the pillage of the rapidly dwindling resources of an impoverished Earth, the wanton destruction of countless species; will senseless human pollution be the cause of cataclysmic meteorological events that will destroy much of what we have built up?

These differing reactions can be traced back to two competing metaphors, two archetypes for the human condition: the Garden of Eden and the Endless Struggle8. In the Garden of Eden, milk and honey flow freely, fruits fall from the trees: the Earth can sustain all its children and gives of its bounty without thought of return. Human beings are part of this natural overflow, and the conscious experience of enjoying this abundance is celebration. Philosophies of progress, characterized by education for all in the Enlightenment, by the continuing advances of the Sciences, by the gradual improvement of human lives through economic production and growth are offshoots of this optimistic view. Mastery over nature is a result of our human curiosity, our belief in progress, and our resolve. If you believe in abundance, you believe that you already have more than you could ever possibly want, and you believe you will always be able to get what you need.

On the Endless Struggle metaphor, life has always been and will always be an unequal struggle for scarce resources, fought first between humans and animals, and now among humans themselves. In the first struggle, human beings are now appropriating almost all of the resources and space for themselves, pushing wild life ever further to the far reaches of the earth. Life among human beings is also a brutal competition for the things people desire. Satisfaction comes not from enjoying what we have, but from the feeling that we have something our neighbour does not. Competition rules our lives, whether in the form of competition for looks, possessions, for status, or for power.

In the Endless Struggle scenario, we find ourselves on an inhospitable planet which barely tolerates us, we toil in hardship to eke a meagre existence out of the ground, we struggle to protect ourselves from capricious and unforgiving nature, from diseases that constantly invade our bodies, from old and new plagues that could wipe us out suddenly, always on the verge of outwitting our defence mechanism and our antibiotics. In the Endless Struggle, satisfaction can never be attained, because we will always have less than we want, less than we would feel happy with. Even if we attain pleasure momentarily, it will never last long. The joys felt in our youth, in the surprises of travel, for a symphony or for a fine glass of wine, will inevitably cease and leave us pining for their disappearance. Even if we were to attain pleasures effortlessly, the law of diminishing returns entails that ever more will be required to achieve the same level of satisfaction. We get so easily bored, placated, jaded from even the most exotic of pleasures, stuffed full, that we will run out of experiences that can hold our interest. We live in perpetual resentment of the things that we do not have coupled with the inability to enjoy what we do have. If you believe in scarcity, you believe that you can never have as much as you desire, and that you have to struggle endlessly to get what you want.

Paradoxes of abundance

The opposition between these two views of the human condition leads to a string of paradoxes that I wish to explore here. Why, when we have so much wealth, do we feel so little confidence and pleasure in enjoying it? Why is there shame hanging over our feeling abundant and masterful? Why, at the moment of enjoying our riches, do we remind ourselves of poverty existing somewhere else, which stops our enjoyment9? Why do we need to compare ourselves to other people in order to enjoy our riches? Why does the fact that all of our pleasures are inevitably ephemeral stop us from enjoying them while they last? Why, when we feel so confident of our own human selves, are we at the same time so powerless about protecting our bodies from cancers and viruses? Why, when we are so clearly in charge of our own collective destiny, do we feel unable to proudly proclaim that the future will be a better place to live? Why, with all the resources at our disposal, can we not strive for a more equal distribution? Why, if we can choose the manner of our living, do we feel we are living such unsustainable lives that it will hamper coming generations? Why, when we have a good idea of the ecological causes of global warming, are we unable to take concerted and collective action? Why do many increases in economic wealth, such as more comfortable, reliable, and plentiful cars, often lead to a decrease in mobility in endless traffic jams, and therefore in quality of life? Why, no matter what our achievements are, do we feel pangs of envy and jealousy for those we exalt as idols in sports and popular entertainment as the true stars of our time?

The paradox for most of us, simply, is that the richer we become, the less we seem to be able to enjoy our wealth. This is most certainly a problem of our spoiled times, with sixty years of relative peace and economic development to treasure in the developed countries. We are surprised that the more we produce the less quality we have. The more mastery over nature we attain, the more we become a danger to ourselves. This clouds any sense of euphoria we may have for new achievements in genetic engineering, in nanotechnology, in the search for abundant energy sources.

Indeed, where is our pride? Who in this age writes of the blistering possibilities of the human mind? Our newspapers and newscasts are filled with real and potential disasters. We are fearful of the future, of the fragility of our Earth, of our political systems, of war and of terrorism, fearful of our own inquisitive nature. Why do we periodically abandon ourselves to orgies of destruction in war and genocide? We have also seem to have lost faith in our own economic possibilities. The developed countries seek to protect themselves ever more ruthlessly against what they see as the hordes of destitute people fleeing persecution and poverty at home to try for a better life. These people are no longer seen as an enrichment of our societies, but an unwanted burden to an already overstrained system.

Why, in sum, when we are achieving mastery, are we so fearful of our own achievements? Why, when we have accumulated and produced wealth far beyond anything civilization has ever seen, do we feel so unable to enjoy it and be proud of it? Is life on earth is in fact nothing but an Endless Struggle, or is it an experience of the abundant energies of what it means to be alive?

The economic conundrum

The opposition between these two archetypes, between scarcity and abundance, can be rendered quite clearly in a simple equation. Scarcity is the situation where our needs will always be much larger than our available resources: needs > resources. Conversely, abundance is the situation where our resources will always vastly outstrip our needs: resources > needs.

Under scarcity, whatever resources we achieve through production will always be outstripped by our present needs and those of the generations to come. These needs include never having less than our neighbour, the need for all of the world’s population to live with the same level of material comfort that those in developed countries enjoy, and the needs of all subsequent generations. Scarcity is the fear that the production of this finite planet with dwindling resources and threatened ecosystems will not be able to fulfil this plethora of needs. In the rhetoric of scarcity, the human animal is fundamentally poor, fundamentally deficient, and fundamentally incapable. On this view, humans are unable, through incompetence or ill will, to produce all that they would need to live a glorious life, and to distribute it with a measure of justness.

In feeling abundance, we experience life as an overflowing bounty, the joy inherent in every moment of the clock of our ticking lives. We feel our needs will always be smaller than the vast arrays of resources that we can call upon. Our hunger will always be satiated in a world where we can produce an endless array of foodstuffs. We will never need to feel uncomfortable in a world that we can mould and design to fit our needs. We trust that we will be capable of creating such distributive justice that those who find themselves in less fortunate circumstances will be able to claim the same level of comfort. In a world where historically growth has been uneven, there is now the opportunity to build solidarity and increase the enjoyment of living for all of us. Belief in abundance is the sense that our psychological needs can be fulfilled, that living is the exaltation of our excess.

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