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Studying Abundance

on 19 August 2010 - 3:15pm

Roberto Verzola extends his  previous study of  "Undermining Abundance" to provide us with this deeply incisive classification of abundance as well as mechanisms for managing 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..


Classifying abundance

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.

Social sectors.

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.

Across species.

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.

Elemental basis.

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.

Ecological abundance.

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.

Mineral abundance.

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

Information 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.

Psychic abundance.

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.