Greed and Scarcity

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An excerpt from chapter 2 of Sacred Economics, by Charles Eisenstein:

"Greed makes sense in a context of scarcity. Our reigning ideology assumes it: it is built in to our Story of Self. The separate self in a universe governed by hostile or indifferent forces is always at the edge of extinction, and secure only to the extent that it can control these forces. Cast into an objective universe external to ourselves, we must compete with each other for limited resources. Based on the story of the separate self, both biology and economics have therefore written greed into their basic axioms. In biology it is the gene seeking to maximize reproductive self-interest; in economics it is the rational actor seeking to maximize financial self-interest. But what if the assumption of scarcity is false—a projection of our ideology, and not the ultimate reality? If so, then greed is not written into our biology but is a mere symptom of the perception of scarcity.

An indication that greed reflects the perception rather than the reality of scarcity is that rich people tend to be less generous than poor people. In my experience, poor people quite often lend or give each other small sums that, proportionally speaking, would be the equivalent of half a rich person’s net worth. Extensive research backs up this observation. A large 2002 survey by Independent Sector, a nonprofit research organization, found that Americans making less than $25,000 gave 4.2 percent of their income to charity, as opposed to 2.7 percent for people making over $100,000. More recently, Paul Piff, a social psychologist at University of California–Berkeley, found that “lower-income people were more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful to others than were those with more wealth.”1 Piff found that when research subjects were given money to anonymously distribute between themselves and a partner (who would never know their identity), their generosity correlated inversely to their socioeconomic status.2

While it is tempting to conclude from this that greedy people become wealthy, an equally plausible interpretation is that wealth makes people greedy. Why would this be? In a context of abundance greed is silly; only in a context of scarcity is it rational. The wealthy perceive scarcity where there is none. They also worry more than anybody else about money. Could it be that money itself causes the perception of scarcity? Could it be that money, nearly synonymous with security, ironically brings the opposite? The answer to both these questions is yes. On the individual level, rich people have a lot more “invested” in their money and are less able to let go of it. (To let go easily reflects an attitude of abundance.) On the systemic level, as we shall see, scarcity is also built in to money, a direct result of the way it is created and circulated.

The assumption of scarcity is one of the two central axioms of economics. (The second is that people naturally seek to maximize their rational self-interest.) Both are false; or, more precisely, they are true only within a narrow realm, a realm that we, the frog at the bottom of the well, mistake for the whole of reality. As is so often the case, what we take to be objective truth is actually a projection of our own condition onto the “objective” world. So immersed in scarcity are we that we take it to be the nature of reality. But in fact, we live in a world of abundance. The omnipresent scarcity we experience is an artifact: of our money system, of our politics, and of our perceptions.

As we shall see, our money system, system of ownership, and general economic system reflect the same fundamental sense of self that has, built into it, the perception of scarcity. It is the “discrete and separate self,” the Cartesian self: a bubble of psychology marooned in an indifferent universe, seeking to own, to control, to arrogate as much wealth to itself as possible, but foredoomed by its very cutoff from the richness of connected beingness to the experience of never having enough.

The assertion that we live in a world of abundance sometimes provokes an emotional reaction, bordering on hostility, in those of my readers who believe that harmonious human coexistence with the rest of life is impossible without a massive reduction in population. They cite Peak Oil and resource depletion, global warming, the exhaustion of our farmland, and our ecological footprint as evidence that the earth cannot long support industrial civilization at present population levels.

This book offers a response to this concern as part of a vision of a sacred economy. More importantly, it addresses the “how” questions as well—for example, how we will get to there from here. For now I will offer a partial response, a reason for hope.

It is true that human activity is vastly overburdening the earth today. Fossil fuels, aquifers, topsoil, the capacity to absorb pollution, and the ecosystems that maintain the viability of the biosphere are all being depleted at an alarming rate. All the measures on the table are far too little, far too late—a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed." (