To appear in IETE Technical Review, Jan-Feb 2015.
How did economies start? In olden days, after meeting our requirements, we shared the surplus with neighbours and relatives. This also helped us bridge relationships necessary for a healthy society. However, when we started using money as a primary medium of transaction, the producer and the consumer became separate entities and began to increasingly exchange scarce man-made goods. As a result, we moved from a situation of abundance (of labour, goodwill, and renewable resources) to scarcity. This problem is compounded by the advent of science and technological innovations .
In 1934, Stuart Chase, in The Economy of Abundance, suggested to imagine the life of people who lived 100 years ago , . They were using far less energy than we are using now. They found means of deriving energy from the easily available and renewable resources such as wood, water, wind and animal labour. It was a hard life, nonetheless, socially rewarding and personally satisfying. Nearly two centuries later, we use several hundreds of times more energy than those people. A typical US lifestyle requires ~11 kW/person and in Europe, it is ~3.5 -5.5 kW/person. India and China manage with about 1 kW/person. The world average nowadays is about 2 kW/person. If our energy requirements continue to increase at today’s rate, in future we may require, on an average, no less than 4 kW/person. This translates into about 40 TW for a 10 billion people world . That is mind boggling!
In spite of technological advances and increased consumption of energy, modern life has become very complex and is not any happier than it was a couple of centuries ago. We have become self-centered and devoid of any social concerns. A behavioural neuroscientist would describe us today as curiosity driven and pleasure seeking human animals. Our striving for immediate gratifications and insatiable desires is addictive. This deprives us of the opportunity to be self-aware and prudent and does not let us work towards building an equitable and sustainable society using science and technology as instruments .
The basis for being a scientist is rational thinking. Unfortunately, when we are rational, it snatches away from us the neutral values such as love, compassion and sharing which are the foundations for a happy living. Therefore, a rational person becomes a self-interested person. It is a time-honoured fact that a self-interested person cannot contribute to the common good of the society .
With the advent of science (and hence, rational thinking) together with money as our medium of transaction, we moved from a situation of abundance to scarcity because wealth accumulation has become our primary focus. Greed (an unwillingness to share) is the shadow of scarcity. Creating scarcity fuels competition. To be competitive, we use innovation and withhold knowledge . Legal restrictions on knowledge lead to monopoly and exploitation by those who hold the knowledge. Hence, we drifted from a position of exchange of surplus to exchange of scarcity idolizing profit driven innovators as the primary vehicles of development. “Abundance has been appropriated by some and squandered by most of us” leading to the mess that we are in . In this situation, those who are rich become richer at the cost of those who are marginal. We seem to have forgotten what Andrew Carnegie, a great philanthropist, once wrote: ‘A man who dies rich dies disgraced’.
A rational and sustainable world is possible only if there is abundance. For innovators to be able to build a sustainable world, we need to create an environment where passion, intrinsic motivation and willingness to share knowledge become core values to the psychology of young innovators. Innovation and technology should be used to make our lives fulfilling and cooperative. We should not let innovation and technology make us more anxious, addictive, fearful, competitive and greedy than ever.
I think we need to sensitize our young innovators to revisit our economic models and strive to build economies of abundance rather than scarcity.
- A. Fricker, “Economies of abundance”, Futures, vol.31, pp.271–280, 1999.
- S. Chase, The economy of abundance, New York: MacMillan, 1934.
- D. Cahen and I. Lubomirsky, “Energy, the global challenge, and materials”, Materials Today, vol.11, no.12, pp.116-120, December 2008.
- P. C. Whybrow, “Dangerously addictive: Why we are biologically ill-suited to the riches of modern America”, Neuropsychiatria i Neuropsychologia, vol.4, issue no.3-4, pp.111-115, 2009.
- M. Olson, The logic of collective action, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965.