Roberto Verzola on Undermining vs. Developing Abundance
Long excerpts from a series of texts by Roberto Verzola.
- 1 Context
- 2 Text 1
- 3 Text 2
"I have been doing a lot of thinking and research about abundance nowadays. This concept unifies within a single theoretical framework certain ideas about information technology, information economy, natural resources, agriculture and the environment. That’s quite a span.
So far, I’ve finished three pieces about it. The first, “Challenging media: poverty amidst abundance“, was published January 2008 on the WACC journal on development. The second, “Undermining Abundance“, which is strictly speaking, still a draft until the reviewers issue a final acceptance, will be hopefully published as a chapter in the forthcoming book From Intellectual Property Rights to Access to Knowledge. The third, “Studying Abundance“, is also a draft which I just submitted for review. This last piece extends the previous one by looking more deeply into the classification of abundance as well as mechanisms for managing abundance.
I’m excited about the new insights being generated by this direction of research. I think the results will have a lot of impact in practical work.
Consider the implications, for instance, if the poor managed to change their mindset and started to grasp the significance of the abundance around them, which they can tap if they wanted to. That is a very empowering notion! Instead of being paralyzed by the existing mindset of powerlessness, they can be energized by the realization that they can do something about it. Now." (http://rverzola.wordpress.com/2008/11/09/classifying-managing-abundance/)
Verzola, Roberto, Undermining Abundance (Counter-Productive Uses of Technology and Law in Nature, Agriculture and the Information Sector)(July 14, 2008). INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS AND ACCESS TO KNOWLEDGE, Gaelle Krikorian and Amy Kapczynski, eds., Zone Books, Forthcoming.
Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1160044
Technology and law are increasingly used to undermine processes of abundance intrinsic to nature, agriculture and the information sector. A number of examples are reviewed here. Such counter-productive use of technology and law is traced to corporate profit-seeking. The relationships between the phenomenon of abundance and the related concepts of scarcity and commons are explored. Finally, approaches are proposed that harness abundance for the human good.
"After the Second World War, the chemical industries of the West shifted their attention back to civilian applications, including the large scale production of synthetic urea, organo-chlorines and other fertilizers and pesticides. These agrochemicals were marketed supposedly to provide additional nutrition for farmers' crops and to kill crop pests. However, farmers and governments did not realize that these products also killed, incapacitated, weakened, or otherwise made life difficult for very important but little known creatures: soil organisms which turned organic matter into natural plant food, and friendly organisms like predators and parasites which kept pest populations in check. These creatures comprised a vast, largely invisible and unrecognized commons which all farmers unknowingly tapped into, every time they planted seeds and grew crops. In their defense, the chemical industry might claim that they did not know either (which would be an admission of recklessness, if not negligence). But this excuse would be untenable by the 1960s, when the chemical industry viciously attacked Rachel Carson and her book Silent Spring, which had called attention to the harmful effects of DDT and other agrochemicals on nontarget organisms, including human beings.
In effect, the chemical industry was selling farmers and governments a deadly technological Trojan Horse, an anti-abundance poisoned pill. Agrochemicals appeared to offer more abundant harvests; in truth, their deployment would gradually weaken and take the life out of the farmers' biological support systems such as natural sources of plant food and pest enemies. As more agrochemicals were used, the diverse soil populations dwindled, the soil became less fertile and farmers' crops starved. To keep the plants from starving, more synthetic fertilizers were added, which caused the living soil populations to dwindle even further. As the predator and parasite populations likewise dwindled, pest populations went up. So farmers had to spray more pesticides, which then killed even more predators and parasites. More recent studies based on the theory of trophobiosis suggest that synthetic fertilizers actually make plants more attractive to pests. Farmers who took the poisoned pill were caught in the trap and fell into agrochemical addiction, draining life out of the soil and around the crops.
In the 1960s, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)4 introduced IR8, the first of a series of new “high yielding varieties” (HYV) of rice, whose high yields partly came from their better responsiveness to chemical treatment. Farmers were wary and few were willing to let go of their traditional varieties. Drawn by aggressive government subsidies and lending programs, however, more and more farmers switched. As they did, they also stopped planting their heirloom varieties, which were soon lost as the old seeds they had saved dried up and died. As the heirloom varieties disappeared and HYV-dependence grew, farmers also lost their selection and breeding skills. Agrochemicals and the new chemically responsive varieties would eventually be promoted as the “Green” Revolution. Even today, this technological poisoned pill continues to keep millions of farmers addicted to agrochemicals, mired in poverty and debt.
Another facet in the technological substitutions of this period was the gradual replacement of work animals by farm machinery. In the Philippines, for instance, carabaos were the farmers' main source of mechanical power. Carabaos also grazed the less fertile areas around the farm, their dung enriching the soil. The animal usually recovered by itself from injury or sickness. Even more – perhaps the most amazing thing of all – the female carabao gave birth to another carabao every two years or so. Yet, through the same poisoned pill strategy, farm machinery suppliers and the government eventually managed to get many farmers to switch to a mechanical power source that was fuelled by costly imported gasoline instead of free grass, gave out noxious pollutants instead of milk and natural fertilizer, required a skilled technician and costly spare parts if it stopped working, and of course never gave birth to its own replacement.
Counterproductive efforts to control abundance and scarcity have occurred in other fields as well:
- Drug laws make medically effective herbal preparations inaccessible to many.
Ironically, herbs easily grown in backyards and community gardens, whose preparations would be illegal if prescribed by traditional healers, are often the basis for very expensive drugs manufactured by pharmaceutical firms. It is not a coincidence that many of these firms are owned by the same agrochemical companies which control the seed industry.
- Through misleading advertising and collusion with hospitals and medical professionals, formula milk companies have managed to undermine mothers' confidence in their own breast milk. This had led to a decline in breastfeeding in a
number of Asian countries.23 As mothers try substitutes; their production of milk slows down and eventually stops, creating a vast new market for formula milk.
- A traditional Filipino song about plants around the hut (“Bahay Kubo”), taught
to every child in grade school, enumerates 18 food plants that include legumes, greens, root crops, seeds, nuts, and spices. The song omits many more.
Filipinos have become so fixated on Western foods and diets that they overlook the great variety of indigenous food sources, many of which simply grow untended like weeds in their backyards. The monoculture mindset treats these food sources as weeds that must be suppressed. Razed by farm mechanization and the use of herbicides, most of them have now disappeared from people's backyards, from their diets, and from their consciousness, creating real food scarcity and malnutrition.
- Organic products are scarce and expensive because a system biased towards chemicals imposes on organic producers the burden of proof: detailed record keeping,
testing, inspection, certification and labelling. What if producers of chemically treated crops and foods, not organic producers, were instead required by law, in accordance with the “polluter pays” principle, to keep detailed records of chemical treatments; get their products regularly inspected and tested by accredited laboratories for minimum residue levels; undergo thirdparty certification; and follow mandatory labelling requirements to identify which chemicals and by what amounts their food products have been exposed to? If this were so, the price tags of both organic and chemically treated foods would change dramatically in favor of organics.
Creating abundance is a matter of reproducing a good over and over again, until more than enough is available for everyone's need or even for everyone's capacity to consume.
In nature, the tendency towards bountiful abundance is obvious, especially where seasonal variations highlight the contrast between abundance and scarcity. Prehistoric artefacts of fertility goddesses as well as harvest festivals and rituals still practiced today show the extent abundance has been recognized and sought.
Abundance is inherent in the reproductive processes of life. Natural abundance is simply Life reasserting itself through the endless cycle of reproduction by every life form of their own kind. This is the engine of abundance in nature and in agriculture. The process is self limiting too. As every available ecological niche is filled up, species gradually form a food web and settle into a dynamic balance, with closed material cycles ensuring that the balance is maintained. This enables the processes of abundance to continue indefinitely.
Sharing information does not diminish or deplete but rather multiplies and enriches it. Shared information begets more information. The engine of information abundance is the inherent human desire to communicate, to seek information and knowledge, and to share them, an urge that gets more fully expressed as the cost of sharing goes down. The cost of reproducing electronic signals is now approaching zero. With digital technology, books, artworks, music and video can now be stored in the same format as software and databases: as a long string of binary values. From these ones and zeroes, with the right equipment and algorithm, an exact copy of the digital original or a faithful copy of the analog original, can be reconstructed. Once stored digitally and made available in easily searchable form on a global network, an unlimited number of users may now get any number of exact copies of the work. Who cannot recognize the abundance of human knowledge, experience and creative work made possible by the Internet? As more and more people discover its possibilities for sharing freely, the whole range of human skills, thought and feeling is now being made available through this medium.
From an information perspective, abundance in nature and in agriculture is, in a way, driven by the inherent program within genetic information to reproduce itself. This abundance, however, must eventually express itself in terms of biomass and is therefore constrained by material limits. Information abundance, on the other hand, is of the non material variety. Thus information goods offer the promise of practically unlimited abundance, constrained mainly by the limits of human creativity, the storage capacity of media, and the availability of electricity to power servers on the Internet twenty four hours a day.
The driving forces behind abundance in the agriculture and information sectors have been identified. In agriculture, it is the inherent urge in every life form to reproduce its own kind, fuelled by the practically limitless energy from the sun. In the information sector, it is the inherent urge in every human being to communicate with others, share knowledge and information with them, and produce knowledge together, given full expression by the near zero cost of sharing made possible with digital electronic technology.
Abundance helps to meet human needs and wants and should therefore be welcomed.
What is the driving force behind antiabundance?
The answer should be clear by now. Attacks against abundance have been mostly initiated by business firms or by governments. Where governments undertook these measures, they have done so at the instance of some business firms, which in the final analysis reaped the benefits of the government measures.
Looking more closely at the logic of business firms, it is obvious that the immediate effect of restricting abundance is to reduce supply and increase overall demand. These in turn raise prices or keep their levels high. If the costs of production change little or not at all and prices go up, then profits go up. This is the logic behind corporate efforts to develop technologies and influence State policies that give them closer control over the abundance and scarcity of goods: to create the best conditions for maximizing profits. Indeed, they may maximize profits, but may not necessarily be the best way to encourage creativity. Free/open source software and farmer bred varieties show that creativity can continue to flourish even without the attraction of monopoly earnings.
Shouldn't this selfish end give way to higher societal goals? The economist's answer is that society's higher goals are indeed served when everyone pursues their own self interest in free competition with others. In fact, economists argue, the competitive pursuit of individual gain accomplishes overall social goals better, even if this “was no part of his intention,” than when individuals consciously try to advance society's higher goals. This idea that individual pursuit of self interest not only leads to but is actually the best path towards overall social good became the moral basis for capitalist society. This was the programmed into business firms as an “urge” to maximize gain, and they do so by controlling abundance and scarcity in their favor. This is the driving force behind anti abundance. Because human beings were a complex bundle of urges, emotions and motivations who often acted irrationally (i.e., regardless of self interest) from an economist's perpective, corporations became the ideal economic agents, pursuing nothing but maximum gain for themselves based on the economic theory of laissez faire capitalism.
They are therefore driven to undermine abundance and create artificial scarcity as an unintended but logical consequence of their internal programming, creating a modern class of rentiers who accumulate wealth by charging fees for access to the resources they control.
Constructing a theory of abundance
Economics has always assumed a condition of scarcity and defined its role as the efficient allocation of scarce resources relative to unlimited human wants. Nowhere does abundance figure in the definition or goals of economics.
Practically all economic textbooks are premised on scarcity. Check their index: “scarcity” would be found in the early pages – the first chapter, probably; “abundance” would be missing, creating a blind spot among economists. Samuelson and Nordhaus write in page 2 of their textbook: “At the core, [economics] is devoted to understanding how society allocates its scare resources. Along the way to studying the implications of scarcity, economics tries to figure out the 1001 puzzles of everyday life.”30 Some books might refer to “overproduction”, suggesting an anomaly to be avoided or corrected. Misunderstanding abundance as overproduction logically leads to counterproductive measures restricting abundance, a misapplication of concepts developed under assumptions of scarcity.
Yet, once we open our minds, we should see abundance all around us. Solar energy has been with us from the beginning. So have clean air and water, plants and animals, soil life, forests, and the astounding variety of life on Earth, now threatened. Since the Internet emerged, we have also seen an extraordinary abundance of information and knowledge and no lack of people willing to share them freely. Just look at the Web, Yahoo!, Google, Wikipedia, YouTube and all the lesser known but incredibly useful efforts to make information and knowledge freely available on the Internet. New technologies promise even more abundance: in bandwidth through fiber optics, in air time through spread spectrum technology, and in storage through new media. Clearly, abundance is as much a feature of the real world as scarcity. To understand this blind spot of economics and harness it fully for the human good, we need to construct theories of abundance to complement the theories of scarcity that dominate economics today. In fact, economists who talk of “relative scarcity” only need a minor leap of logic to recognize “relative abundance”. After all, a glass that is halfempty is also half full.
Consider the variations in abundance. It can be precarious (collapse imminent), temporary (lasting less than a lifetime), short term (a few lifetimes), medium term (many lifetimes) or long term (longer than human existence). It can be relative (enjoyed by a limited number), local (confined to a specific area) or absolute (accessible to all). The abundance of solar energy and other energy forms associated with it, such as hydro, wind and wave energy, is obviously longterm. Solar energy is universal, while hydro, wind and wave energy are more local. Coal's abundance is medium term, if the estimates are correct that the world's reserves may last for several hundred years more (i.e., many human generations). Oil, which is perhaps good for another generation or two at current extraction rates, is short term.
In addition, fossil fuel abundance is relative because it is not accessible to all, but only to large firms with enough financial, technical and human resources. While absolute, universal abundance can have free/open access, others may need some form of management. Local resources may need to restrict or even exclude outsiders. Extraction rates may need to be regulated. Moratoriums may even have to be imposed on threatened resources.
Ensuring against the failure of abundance
The ultimate goal of any management regime should be to ensure against any failure of abundance.
The following specific goals are suggested:
1. Make the resource accessible to a greater number of people – ideally, to all.
This is merely a restatement of the goal of social justice. Potable water, for instance, is so important to human survival that this goal should be paramount for this resource, abundant or not. For water – and for land, as well – Gandhi's observation rings true:
“There is enough in the world for everyone's need, but not for everyone's greed.” These resources can become abundant for all or scarce for many, depending on how they are managed. In a country like the Philippines, land seems scarce to the millions who do not own a home lot because the ownership structure allows a few to own thousands of hectares of land. Agrarian reform is, in effect, an effort to keep land abundant for every rural household that is willing to farm land. Some have also argued that familysize farms can be as productive and efficient, if not more, than huge, corporateheld tracts.
2. Make sure the resource will last for generations, preferably indefinitely.
This means turning limited, temporary or short term abundance into long term abundance. This is also a restatement of the goal of sustainability. Rain forests, for instance, have been providing countless generations of indigenous tribes everything they needed for survival. At current rates of depletion, however, our generation has turned rain forests into a short term or temporary resource that will be gone in a few generations, if not within our generation. Economists should be familiar with the difference between income and capital, natural resource stocks and flows. In the rain forest case, ensuring long term abundance means limiting the consumption of forest products to the natural income we get out of the forest, and refraining from eating into the capital stock.
Strategies for managing nonrenewable resources, or information resources, would of course be different.
3. Build a cascade of abundance.
Abundance in one sector (or of one good) can help create abundance in another sector (or of another good). The food chain is a good example of abundance at one level (solar energy) supporting abundance at the next level (plants) which supports abundance at a higher level (herbivores), etc. By building linkages among farm components, permaculture32 teaches how one type of abundance can be made to support another through conscious design. A similar cascade occurs on the Internet, which supports the Web, which in turn supports search engines and new applications like wikis and blogs, one abundance building on another. The sun is a flexible energy source that can provide, through collectors and concentrators, a wide range of temperatures to match various enduses.
By tapping it more, industry can harness potentially huge amounts of energy for various productive activities, opening up possibilities for creating abundance in many other sectors. Photovoltaic (PV) cells made from silica, also an abundant resource, can transform sunlight into cheap electricity for industrial, commercial and home use. This can make viable the electrolytic extraction from water, another abundant resource, of hydrogen and oxygen. These can be stored and later used in fuel cells, holding the promise of a pollution free hydrogen based economy.
Most computer equipment, which are silicon based like PV cells, have either been halving in price or doubling in capacity every few years or so. LCD projectors now sell for a fifth of their price ten years ago. If PV prices follow suit, perhaps due again to China's entry, we can look forward to a cascade of solar based abundance in the future.
Eventually we should be able to recognize conditions that lead to abundance and then learn how to create more abundance. We alrady have a rough idea how abundance happens in nature, in agriculture and in the information sector. We simply need to nurture the forces that generate such abundance. One challenge is how to emulate ecological processes such as the cyclic loops of nature to create a similar material abundance in the industrial sector, without disrupting natural cycles
4. Develop an ethic that nurtures abundance.
To manage abundance well, its community of beneficiaries must adopt a behavioral ruleset and the corresponding enforcement mechanisms. It is desirable to eventually turn this ruleset into a mindset, similar to Leopold's land ethic33 and Postel's water ethic, that makes the other goals of social justice, sustainability, cascading abundance, and dynamic balance second nature to all.
5. Attain dynamic balance.
In a finite world, material abundance cannot grow indefinitely. Nature shows us how abundance can occur indefinitely through a dynamic balance (i.e., harmony) of abundant elements connected in closed material cycles. Citing permaculture again as example, a similar balance can be attained in a farm by modelling it after long lived self regenerating ecological systems to design what are, in effect, forests or ponds of food and cash crops. After we learn to design similar closed loops in industry, we can bring this sector back into harmony with the rest of the living world.
Abundance creates commons
If we review history, and perhaps prehistory as well, we would see that abundance has often led to the creation of commons. In communities that respond to abundance by treating it as a common pool resource, community members tend to act cooperatively to manage the commons so that the goals of social justice and sustainability are met and the risk of failure in abundance is minimized.
Commons management involves not only economic rules but also cultural and political factors such as conscious community decisions, appeals to the common good, and the values of sharing, cooperation, altruism and community spirit. It often relies not only on prices but also on restrictions, prohibitions and taboos. Ancient tribes and other traditional societies have evolved complex social norms of behavior and hierarchies of communal use and access rights that have served them well in managing abundance and the commons for many generations. Similar norms have likewise evolved among successful modern commons such as free/open source software and the Wikipedia.
Their institutions and methods for governing the commons have proved even more useful for threatened resources as well as resources that have actually become scarce, by helping meet goals of social justice and sustainability. In a number of instances, fishing grounds and forest reserves have been nursed back to abundance, thanks to the proper management of these commons.
Draft by Roberto Verzola: Studying Abundance.
Abundance as a field of study
Because abundance is clearly present in many aspects of human life, it is obviously an interesting phenomenon and its study should logically be a major field of study. Yet, economics practically denies abundance, defining itself as the study of efficient options in the context of scarcity. Economists often say that when a good starts becoming abundant, it stops becoming interesting, because the economic problem has been solved. If indeed, abundance is recognized as the solution to the problem of scarcity, shouldn't it be studied even more? Shouldn't we learn the conditions that lead to abundance, and the conditions that keep it going? Shouldn't we acquire the knowledge and skill to generate abundance at will? Shouldn't we master the art and science of making one form of abundance create another, and another, leading to a cascade of abundance?
Abundance is simply one end of a continuum that has scarcity at its other end. Obviously, anything that is relatively scarce is, at the same time, relatively abundant. For completeness and by any form of logic, the entire continuum should deserve our attention and study. We need a new economic science that studies both scarcity and abundance.
In fact, many of the questions raised here go beyond the realm of economics. They need a multi-disciplinary approach that includes expertise from the social, natural and physical sciences.
Indeed, the questions raised by a study of abundance are worthy scientific challenges.
Let us apply our new-found awareness and curiosity about abundance and make the first step towards studying it.
Let us see how abundance may be classified..
Abundance may be classified in various ways, each way revealing additional facets about the phenomenon and giving us hints about tapping it for the human good.
For instance, abundance may be classified according to:
Is it, like a waterfall, available to a few communities only? Local sources need local management, where face-to-face interaction between acquaintances may ease the tension of resource conflicts. In fact, many resources are actually local, though nation-states have appropriated these for themselves and turned them into national patrimony. The Regalian doctrine that favor national over local control of resources is, in many countries, vestige of their colonial past. The continuing debates between local and national decision-making in the case of forests, dams and mine sites reflect this ongoing tension between local and national management of sources of abundance. This conflict becomes every more complicated with the entry of corporations, who range the globe for resources to tap until these are depleted and move on. Some sources of abundance, like seas and great rivers, bring benefits to more than one country, and therefore require even more delicate and sensitive negotiations. Resource conflicts may erupt into wars, especially with resources which are being gradually depleted. The truly global sources of abundance, like our atmosphere and the oceans, require complex international management, as can be seen today in the climate change negotiations. Each of these types need skill and knowledge not just in the scientific aspects of abundance but in a whole range of areas that include political, economic, social, cultural and historical perspectives.
Negotiations between potential beneficiaries and other stakeholders involving spatially-limited abundance can be highly unequal due to existing assymetric power relations. This is even truer in the case of abundance that is spread over the time dimension, as explained below.
Is the abundance precarious? Precarious abundance is one whose collapse is imminent and might be gone soon, and we had better do something about it quickly if we want to continue enjoying its benefits. Is it temporary? This would refer to phenomena that last for less than a human lifetime, perhaps a gold rush in some mountainside, or a discovery of a huge pile of guano in an isolated island or cavern. Will it last for a few human lifetimes? Then it is a short-term abundance, like oil is turning out to be. If it will last many lifetimes more, then it is a medium-term abundance, like, possibly, coal. Forests, rivers, lakes, inland seas and other long-term sources of abundance should last beyond human existence. But because of our own profligacy, ignorance or indifference, these long-term resources have instead been turned into short-term resources that will be gone in a few generations.
This are huge challenges, which should be of interest to all. How do we stop a precarious resource from imminent collapse? How do we turn a temporary abundance into a long-lasting one, that can serve not only a few but many generations, if not every generation that is yet to come. The seventh generation principle of native American Indians, it is said, reckoned decisions in terms of their effects up to the seventh generation.
Shouldn't we, given the greater power of our technologies, look even farther into the future?
Future generations cannot negotiate for themselves. Neither can plants and animals. Thus, some humans must take up the cudgels for these voiceless stakeholders. Negotiating for access is hard enough when a resource is abundant, how much more when it becomes scarce, and furthermore, one has no voice? This situation demands not only the utmost of cross-species and cross-generation empathy from us but also the deepest appreciation of the interconnectedness of generations and species.
Certain types of abundance are accessible to all, other are accessible only to those who have the wealth to exploit them. When the sun is up, poor and rich alike can enjoy the tan, the warmth and the Vitamin D. Anyone can set up a solar water heater, a solar food cooker, or a photovoltaic panel. But only corporate giants can access the oil and gas within the deep bowels of the earth, and the process these into the various fuels they need. It should thus be obvious which abundant energy source should receive the highest priority in terms of government research, subsidy and preference.
Appropriating the world's abundance exclusively for the human is a utilitarian perspective that is increasingly under question. A less anthropocentric view concedes the right of other species to exist, and therefore to survive. It further concedes other species the right to their own living space, a concession that everyone must eventually make, if not for the sake of these species, then also for the sake of future generations. This explicit concession is already enshrined in the design principles of at least one farming system. Permaculture parcels every farm into several zones. Zone 5 is wilderness, a cascade of abundance reserved for other species and not to be casually intruded upon even by its so-called human owners, and then only as visitors.5 Reserved wilderness areas within the permaculture farm allow us to witness, study and appreciate at close range how nature's abundance, left to its own, plays itself out.
Pre-history has seen a stone-based as well iron-based eras featuring a specific set of abundance that characterize them. Information abundance is silicon-based, dependent on technological advances in semiconductors, of which silicon is one, together with the benefits of digitalization, which made the reproduction of any number of identical copies over unlimited generations a possibility. Ecological abundance is carbon-based. Carbon's natural affinity to hydrogen and oxygen created organic substances that formed the basis of life and of reproductive processes. These led to the great abundance in nature that is ultimately our very own basis for existence. The abundance of solar energy is hydrogen-based. Hopefully, in the future, another hydrogen-based energy economy, using hydrogen extracted from water to run fuel cells, can replace the unsustainable fossil fuel-based energy economy we have today.
Five types of abundance
Taking into account these various ways of classifying abundance, we suggest the following tentative classification to highlight the differences among the various types. The first three, in a way, represent the three fundamental building blocks of the universe: matter, energy and information. The last two take care of opposite or orthogonal concepts and ensure conceptual completeness.
1. Material abundance
Matter exists both in animate and in inanimate – living and non-living – form. Biological goods become abundant because they have evolved, over eons, the built-in means to reproduce themselves and yet to maintain a dynamic balance that does not overwhelm the finite world in which they exist.
While the means of reproduction of information goods is external, usually through human agents or automatons on the information network, the means of reproduction of biological organisms is internal.
They contain their own programs for reproducing themselves.
Maintaining ecological abundance is less a problem of ensuring the right conditions for the reproduction of life and more a problem of ensuring that we humans do not destroy those conditions which are favorable to the reproduction of life. Over millions of years, various life forms have evolved to optimize their capacity to reproduce themselves under existing ecological conditions. All we need to do is to respect these conditions and make sure our human activities do not modify them to the extent of threatening the ecological abundance that promises us a perpetual stream of ecological benefits. Furthermore, we must learn from the way ecological systems reproduce themselves indefinitely without having to grow without limit. The secret is in establishing closed material loops fueled by the sun. These closed loops are circular food chains that encompass every element of the system. Together, they form a food web that eventually reaches a dynamic balance highly resilient to environmental stresses.
Think of depositing money in the bank, where it earns a fixed interest. As long as you don't touch the principal and withdraw only the interest earnings, you will get a perpetual stream of benefit out of that fixed amount. This used to be the situation in most of the living world, where our natural capital gave us a perpetual flow of natural income. As long as human civilizations protected the principal and withdrew from nature only a small portion of its products, we would have been able to enjoy nature's abundance in perpetuity. Today, in most of our renewable resources, we are drawing not only the interest but portions of the principal. In the future, there will be less interest earnings to enjoy, and if we go on our unsustainable way, the principal itself will soon be gone. This is the situation today in many of our renewable resources.
Do not take the principal-interest analogy too literally because of a moral hazard: bank are often engaged in unsustainable lending due to the fractional reserve principle, which create a financial bubble. Matter and energy cannot be created and we have to live with the material and energetic limits handed on to us by nature. Money, however, can be created by the privileged few, who become scandalously rich by simply creating more money for lending and earning interest from, while everybody else has to work hard and make sacrifices to earn a living.
Though non-living objects like metals, sand, rock and so on, do not reproduce, there are other means of keeping them abundant. We must remember that matter is never created or destroyed, only transformed. Consider metals. Even if the world's metallic reserves were all eventually mined and used up (this would be an environmental disaster!), the metals will not be gone. The millions of tons of gold, silver, iron, copper, aluminum, tin and other metals which have been mined from the bowels of the earth for human use on the ground will still be around us. All we need to do is locate them, gather them and reprocess into into usable forms once again. The key to abundance in inanimate matter is durability, reusability and recycling.
Imagine a programmable weaving machine with built-in facilities to cut and sew, such that threads go in at one end of the machine, and shirts, pants, coats, dresses and other wearables come out at the other end. The process is software-driven. You can go to the Internet, where people might share their own designs for a particular style of wear, download the software freely, customize the dimensions to your specific requirements, and run the program on the machine. One can easily imagine a similar programmable fabricator for, say, wood. Give it a piece of plywood or a length of 2x4, as many as necessary, and with the right program downloaded from the Internet, you can make your own chair, frame, shelf, table and other furniture or toys. This approach is already possible with metal, using software-controlled universal milling machines.
Instead of instead of cutting, chipping or scraping away material from a workpiece, one can also work from the other end and add material to a workpiece. As early as the 1990s, a “3-d” printer that deposited epoxy layer by layer to a workpiece, to build up any three-dimensional shape, was already commercially available.7\ It could make toys, gears, intricate parts, moulds and a thousand other things. The only limit was one's imagination, captured in software. Such 3d printers have since become common commercial items. If the working raw material were made recyclable too, then this can be another answer to the challenge of making material abundance accessible to more people. Enabling the machine to handle a mix of plastic, wood, metal and electronics can turn it into a software-controlled personal fabricator. This is what MIT's Media Lab has been working on since the turn of the century.8 It doesn't even have to be a personal fabricator. A whole community can share one.
2. Energy abundance
Although it is one of the least tapped by modern technologies, our greatest source of energy abundance is the sun.
Solar energy is a source that is incredibly immense and practically infinite in terms of human scales. It continuously provides a steady source of diffuse energy, from a distance that is far enough to spare us most of the damaging side effects of the infernal processes that fuel the stupendous generation of that energy. Through the appropriate use of collectors and concentrators, the sun's diffuse energy may be transformed into medium- to high-quality heat which can then be converted into other forms for a wide range of uses.
Solar energy is still not absolute in abundance. It is not available at night, for instance.10 So, in addition to collectors and concentrators, storage devices are also needed to make it available when the sun is below the horizon.
Non-renewable sources of energy are a special challenge. Once gone, they are gone forever. That is a huge ethical burden to a society with a conscience. We have built our civilizations on the shaky and short-term foundations of fossil fuels or the shakier foundations of radioactive fuels. As a result of this flawed decision, we have reached a dead-end, ending up with a global greenhouse problem resulting in climate change, sea-level rise and other threats to our very survival. There is urgent need to shift gears, change direction and to focus on various renewable energy sources that can provide us comparable abundance in the long-term rather than the short-term.
Non-renewable abundance is like keeping your money in a private vault, where it earns no interest. The total amount diminishes every time you withdraw some. However large your initial store of money is, you will sooner or later exhaust it and end up with nothing. This is the situation with our non-renewable energy resources such as oil and gas. However abundant they are today, once used, they are gone forever.
Only the energy from sun, perhaps, given its stupendously massive stock of hydrogen, can be considered as good as infinite, even if it will likewise use up its fuel billions of years from now. Paul Hawken has proposed guidelines for managing non-renewables that can be the starting point for an ethical management of non-renewable energy resources.
3. Non-material abundance
This is truly a special type of abundance, because information is not lost whenever it is shared. In fact, sharing information multiplies it, and enables everyone to create even more of it. Because of what economists call the “substitution effect” (consumers tend to shift from higher priced goods to lower-priced ones that can more or less do the same job or fulfill the same need), the information content of other goods will also keep rising as long as using information is cheaper than other approaches. Information abundance can be expected to lead to a cascade of other types of abundance.
The main problem today with information abundance is the mismatch between the two trends: diminishing cost and the promise of universal access on one hand, and, on the other hand, the legal regime of IPRs which threatens information abundance with restrictive laws that unrealistically prohibit sharing, copying and other forms of reproducing information. The second challenge is how to encourage intellectual activity without intellectual property. The success of free/open source software and the extension of this concept to other fields has already shown that monopoly is not the only way, or even the best way, to encourage intellectual activity. More varied ways of rewarding intellectual work need to be evolved.
The term “psychic” is used here not in the ESP sense but in the same psychocultural sense as “psychic rewards” (i.e. non-monetary, non-material), . It refers to certain human feelings and concepts, variously described as “emotional” or even “spiritual”, which are not captured by the term “information”. Psychic abundance covers phenomena which cannot be digitized, copied or reproduced like information. These include love, happiness, companionship, peace, joy, tranquillity, beauty, wisdom, and related concepts. These concepts are often associated with a certain kind of abundance. Many references to abundance on the Internet are of this kind. These references clearly express certain human needs that cannot be met with information, energy or material phenomena but require a special human response that, like the rest, also needs to be studied, learned and mastered.
4. Non-abundance (scarcity)
Included for completeness, this refers to our old friend scarcity. Obviously a spectrum of possibilities lie between absolute abundance and absolute scarcity, and most of what we need and want lie somewhere along this spectrum. Thus a full consideration of what needs to be done to reduce scarcity and enhance abundance requires a study of the causes, conditions and consequences of these complementary phenomena. Economics, which has been studying scarcity from the earliest times, must now expand its coverage to include abundance.
5. Negative abundance
Again, for want of a better term, this refers to an abundance of “bads”, like poisons in the environment, garbage, pollution, greenhouse gases, and various undesirables, which today are often the side-effects of the production of desirables. In some cases, we are so overwhelmed by these “bads” that the entire production process has to be radically overhauled to find ways of producing the goods minus the bads.