Everybody’s Fightin’ about that Spoonful

[ The Note for October 2014 ]

For most of the history of our species, we were hunter-gatherers. We could not store large stocks of resources. Social groups were small, defined by the range individuals within that small group were able to cover, in search of sustenance. We formed microcultures that left little in the way of permanent record. Knowledge expanded slowly. Scarcity remained the rule for human societies, even as agriculture took over, and cities grew, and urban civilization spread across the world. The few that were able to control the structures that establish and reinforce what we call society have been able to enjoy abundance, without allowing everyone else into that enjoyment. Perpetual scarcity, then, appeared to be an organizing principle, though it was more an illusion than a fact of life on Earth.

The way we use energy, land, water and other natural resources, is not sustainable. It was not designed to be. Our interaction with these resources was designed to follow a single premise: that there is not enough for everyone, and we must add, incrementally, at the margins, to whatever we can reliably access, while making sure nobody comes to take it. Buckminster Fuller described this as the primitive approach to organizing civilizations, and this is the way all civilizations have been organized, historically. Provide maximum benefit to the few that rule, so their power can protect the rest of us, and guard against even more corrosive competition from rival societies. There is a logic of scarcity at the heart of our political infrastructure, which is outdated. In his book Critical Path, Fuller noted that as of the mid-20th century, we were already capable of “producing and sustaining a higher standard of living for all humanity than that ever heretofore experienced or dreamt of by any.”

There’s an old blues song that reminds us “Everybody’s fightin’ about that spoonful,” that little extra bit that gives us a primordial edge over rival human beings. What Fuller observed, and what is now more urgent than ever that we come to understand, is that we don’t need to live by such an unthoughtful standard. We don’t need to treat nations as existential threats; we don’t need to farm and harvest energy in ways where there is not enough to sustain both the world’s human population and the natural systems that support life; we don’t need to base the value of money, or the arc of macroeconomic trends, on the illusion of scarcity.

When Adm. Mike Mullen, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked US Navy Capt. Wayne Porter and US Marine Col. Mark Mykleby to conceive a new long-term security strategy for the United States, years of research into centuries of political, scientific, cultural and military history, cross-referenced with ongoing global trends in economics, innovation, and geopolitical dynamics, brought them to sustainability as the leading security priority.

Relationships need to be opportunities for collaboration, not threats to be eliminated. It is actually a severe miscalculation of real economic value to build into our everyday thinking the bias that what we need can only be available to us if it exists only for us. We can build relationships of mutual opportunity out of the tensions of rivalry. We need to eliminate pervasive hidden costs and perverse incentives from our economy and to foster a more intelligent interaction with what Fuller called the “kinetic intercomplementarity” of life-supporting systems. Knowledge is wealth, as are raw materials, so as we integrate and expand our knowledge, we increase the total wealth available to the world. Strong economic policy needs to account for the value of kinetic intercomplementarity, price out corrosive practices, and push value into ground-up, everywhere-active, ecologically-attuned virtuous cycles. Shared prosperity is the future.


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