The earth is full: scarcity and abundance thinking

abundance

‘Take care! Hot noontide sleeps upon the fields. Do not sing! Soft! The world is perfect’.

~Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

It may be the gloomiest TED talk ever. In 2012, the Australian environmentalist Paul Gilding stood before a packed house at Long Beach, California, and explained how a catastrophic economic crisis is inevitable. Gilding calls it The Great Disruption. Gilding’s choice of title reflects his optimistic view that our societies can navigate this crisis and emerge renewed on the other side. If this optimism is misplaced, we’re facing The Great Collapse. The crisis, Gilding explains, is being ‘triggered by humanity passing the limits of the earth’s capacity to provide cheap resources, especially soil, climate and water’. Gilding cites the research of the Global Footprint Network, which calculates that we need 1.5 planet Earths to sustain the global economy at its current levels. With a business as usual mindset in Washington DC, and astounding economic growth in China, India, and other parts of the developing world, a full-scale ecosystemic meltdown is unavoidable. Gilding is frank about the consequences: ‘[W]hat happens when you operate a [finite] system past its limits … is that the system stops working and breaks down. This is what will happen to us’.

Gilding’s argument, while persuasive, is neither original nor new. The argument was first articulated by the Club of Rome in its paper on the limits to growth in the 1970s. Recently, Annie Leonard reiterated the thesis in The Story of Stuff: ‘[W]e live on a finite planet and you can not run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely’. In 2013, with record heatwaves about the world and weather-related disasters shocking climate deniers out of their complacency, the implications of this idea seem to be sinking in. The GFC reminded us what happens when we live beyond our means. The Great Disruption will remind us that our economies and societies have been drawing down on planetary ecosystems for one hundred and fifty years and giving nothing back. We’ve been stacking up an ecosystemic overdraft. Sooner or later, we’ll have to pay the debt.

There is no running from the Great Disruption. To get future-ready, we must face it, acknowledge it, and make time for grieving. Then we must set to action. There is a storm coming. No one knows how bad it will be. Gilding is optimistic. ‘Yes, things will get ugly’, he admits. ‘But we are more than capable of getting through everything that’s coming’. Certainly, if you are in the business of transformation, there are amazing opportunities ahead. If you are a designer, engineer, or architect, the Great Disruption is the defining challenge of your career. We need to apply every ounce of courage, strength, intelligence, and creativity that we possess as a species to hauling our societies out of the era of fossil fuels, mass industrialised production, and hyperconsumption and propelling them into a sustainable future. We literally need to rethink everything.

Philosophers have a role to play too. The first thing we need to rethink is our concept of the natural world. To tackle the Great Disruption in a positive, affirmative, way, we need to identify a more positive, affirmative, vision of nature than the one that got us into this mess. This means acknowledging, first of all, that the way that ‘smart money’ thinks about the natural world is horribly wrong. Since the dawn of the modern age, we’ve tended to see nature as a resource. The open land is space for industrialised agriculture and urban sprawl. The sea is a cavernous repository of fish-stock. Our mighty rivers are a source of hydro-electric power. Our mountains are made for mining – just lop off the top and extract. The more that we’ve exhausted the natural world, the more we’ve come to see it as a scarce resource. We’ve become used to applying a scarcity mindset to thinking about nature, perceiving land, sea, sky and their denizens as dwindling stock that we must carefully manage in order to continue our unsustainable activities.

Scarcity thinking gets in everywhere. If you are working in economics, it’s impossible to avoid. Ironically, Gilding’s argument is a case in point. In order to articulate the crisis that we find ourselves in, Gilding applies the language of scarcity, presenting the natural world and its carrying capacities as radically limited and threatened with exhaustion. We have filled the Earth with our bodies, our products, our pollutants and cities to the extent that we have become the abundant force on the planet, overwhelming nature itself. The Earth is full, Gilding claims:

It is full of us, it’s full of our stuff, full of our waste, full of our demands. Yes, we are a brilliant and creative species, but we’ve created too much stuff — so much that our economy is now bigger than its host, our planet.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that Gilding’s argument is incorrect. There are limits to the carrying capacity of any system. Moreover, to be fair, Gilding is speaking truth to power, and power today speaks and thinks in the language of scarcity. There is something deeply problematic, however, about framing an argument that is fundamentally a defence of the environment in scarcity terms. Inadvertantly, it confirms and supports the very mindset that landed us in this mess. As Einstein said, we cannot solve problems with the same thinking that we used to create them. Somehow, we must learn to think differently. Scarcity thinking can be dangerous. The history of modern society shows how it can lead us to treat nature with callous disregard. A scarcity mindset can also bounce back on us psychologically and spiritually. The way we perceive the so-called external world gets under our skin. Seeing the Earth as an exhausted system impoverishes nature and leaves us feeling impoverished too. We become passionless, dispirited, poisoned by an idea. ‘The Earth is full’, we say. ‘We have overloaded it. Everything is broken’.

The Earth is full. Look around you. Everything that you see is part of the Earth – the grass, trees, birds, clouds, and people. Breathe. Taste the air on your tongue. There is a dense bed of chemicals all about you – we move through it, drink and exhale it like fish in the sea. The air and atmosphere is part of the Earth too. We are so used to this ‘fullness’, so immersed in it, that we scarcely notice it or think about it. We need to try. We need to stop thinking like economic agents for just one moment and listen to the murmur of flows. Do you hear them? It is the sound of the future.

This is the perspective of abundance thinking. If we are to engage the Great Disruption with a sense of hope and purpose, we need to cultivate this style of thinking. We need to learn to integrate ourselves and our societies into the full body of the Earth.

earthThe French philosophers Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) and Felix Guattari (1930-1992) were abundance thinkers, though they never used the term itself. Deleuze and Guattari’s take on the Earth, in their second book together, A Thousand Plateaus (1980), epitomises the abundance perspective. The Earth, Deleuze and Guattari claim, is a ‘body without organs’ (BwO). Behind the esoteric terminology lies a brilliant concept. The Earth is a physical body – a vast physical body with diverse layers and many interacting parts – yet unlike most bodies, it is not organised in any particular way. Think of the sea or the weather system: they have no inherent pattern or structure, but are shaped and reshaped by a host of forces and flows. It is true that the Earth, like the sky and sea, settles into stable states. The Holocene – the geological period of warm average temperatures and relative climactic stability that followed the end of the last ice age 12000 years ago – is an example of the Earth achieving a state of equilibrium. But these stable states are contingent on a vast play of unstable forces, and things can change rapidly if these forces are disrupted. This is precisely what we are seeing today. Far from representing the natural state of the Earth, the climactic regularities that we have taken for granted for 12000 years are the product of an unstable play of forces that surge together, interact, combine, and dissipate. This play of forces is the organless body of the Earth.

One thousand years from now, a future race of beings will look back on the 21st century and wonder how we could have been so technologically adept and yet so blind to the body of the Earth. This race will have a different metaphysics and view of reality to our own. We are the children of Platonic metaphysics. We look at the world and see fixed-state objects and things. But this is an illusion. Nature doesn’t stand still – it flows. To adopt an abundance mindset, we must see the world as a vast torrent of material flows, intersecting, combining, and creating an abundance of things in a time-frame that exceeds human time. Take a coral reef, for example. The reef is an aggregation of billions of tiny animals. If we could glance across centuries, we would see the reef as a fluid structure, expanding and contracting as it integrates the flows of the sea. Societies are accretions of multiple flows: flows of genetic material, carried hither and thither on migratory flows; flows of animals, seeds, plants, and chemicals that flow through our diets; cultural and semiotic flows, flows of images and memes… Everything flows and becomes, evolving, cross-pollinating, mutating, infecting and transforming adjacent flows, from the mating cycle of the hummingbird to the tidal patterns of the Pacific Ocean; from the furious wheel of the hurricane to the distintegration of mountains in glacial time. Everything is fed by the flow of radiation from the sun. Hold out your hands to the sun, right now. Feel it vitalise the mollecular flows of your body.

Abundance thinking is hard. Yet this is only because we’re tapped into the wrong semiotic flows. In future posts, I will interrogate the metaphysical assumptions that make it difficult for us to reflect on abundance. Nietzsche, I will argue, saw clearly how Platonic metaphysics set us on a misguided path to scarcity thinking, a path that we now see leads nowhere. Our path to the future leads back to the Earth, reconceived as a BwO. We need to integrate our societies into the terrestrial body of flows. Environmentalists, of course, have been saying this for decades. The powers of nature are by no means scarce – they are abundant. All we are lacking are the technologies that enable us to tap into the flows of the Earth: flows of radiation from the sun; flows of wind; flows of the sea; and the thriving flow of the myriad interconnected ecosystems about us.

The Earth is full. The most scarce resources on the planet today are wisdom and courage.

Comments

  1. alexanderschimpf says:

    Intriguing, but I’m not sure about that new metaphysics in 1,000 years bit. Philosophy does not have the best track record when it comes to predicting the future.

  2. I’m interested…..what is your opinion of Dr. Guy McPherson, University of Arizona Professor Emeritus of Natural Resources and the Environment and conservation biologist, and his take on what Paul Gilding terms the Great Collapse? Dr. Guy McPherson foresees the imminent end of industrial civilization by 2025 as a result of peak oil. Indeed he not only foresees this, but hopes for it because he claims that industrial collapse is the only thing that will save humans from certain extinction as a result of runaway greenhouse and climate change in the next 20-40 years. Indeed he asserts that human beings have put themselves on the path to irreversible extinction or near extinction. Since all alternative and renewable sources of energy require oil to drive their processes, he asserts that industrial civilization will never be sustainable. A couple years ago he chose to abandon a very comfortable life and tenured position in academia and leave industrial civilization for good citing the moral imperative. In other words, he could no longer conscionably contribute to the horrors and excesses of industrial civllization any longer. Indeed he has chosen to endure the ridicule from family, friends, and others that goes with taking such a radical position . He now lives in a durable self-sustaining farming community with a few other people completely off the grid. He has given numerous talks around the country trying to warn audiences about the imminent danger to our way of life, talking about the moral imperative to leave as he sees it, as well as offering ways to transition from life on the grid to life off the grid. As one would expect, people have not followed his lead. In his talks, McPherson claims it is not the time for wishful thinking. It is the time for doing, meaning breaking away from the industrial paradigm and moving towards and durable set of living arrangements. I do not know if you have ever heard of him or even read his books but this is the basic gist of him and what he believes. I’m asking because the evidence he puts forth to make his basic arguments would refute your way of abundance thinking.

    • Hmmm… Dr McPherson sounds like an uncompromising individual! But I’m not convinced that his ‘get off the grid’ approach offers a real solution. Self-sustaining farming communities work best with a small number of ideologically-aligned members. Were we to relocate billions of people to such communities, they’d quickly devolve into chaos. Of course, we could implement an institutional infrastructure – schools, hospitals, prisons, factories, etc – but in the absence of renewable energy, we’d just be recreating society on the plains. Then there is the issue of feeding the populace… Frankly, I don’t see how it could be done.

      I’m also not convinced that we are incapable of developing the renewable technology that we need to address climate change. There are a bunch of reasons why renewable technology has struggled to achieve its promise to date (I won’t go into them), but looking ahead, we just don’t know what technological advances are possible. I’m not suggesting that ‘technology will save us’ – this is a facile view. But I don’t believe that there are grounds for dismissing the possibility that technology will save us out of hand – we simply don’t know. Therefore, I am crossing my fingers for the development of a 100% renewable energy system – soon!

      WRT your final claim: I don’t believe that abundance thinking represents a solution per se. But it could contribute to putting us on a better path – a path that is both more sustainable and more fulfilling for us human beings. My concern is not to point out how we could ‘save the world’, but to indicate how we could make it a better place to live in, perhaps even as it goes down the proverbial toilet! I want to live in a world full of passion, profundity, and hope, as opposed to apathy, meaninglessness, and despair.

      My sense is that, as things get worse, the popular desire for meaning in life will increase. I think we should all try to affirm this, in whatever way we can. None of us live forever – the best thing we can do is to make the most of the time we have, here and now. Who knows, maybe in and through the common search for meaning, we will find a way to accelerate the shift into sustainable societies and beat this thing? If not, at least we will have struggled to live to our fullest capacity. Perhaps that future race of beings will look back on our time from 1000 years hence and say: ‘this was their finest hour’. That, for me, would be enough.

      • It bears consideration that although hugely credentialed folks created the Peak Oil idea, it proved wrong. Like the “Seven Day Adventists,” not all went home when the world didn’t end. Just as a religion persists to this day from the failed prediction of “the end day,” so to does a plethora of persistent believers in “the second/third/(name a number) stage of peak oil.” The persistent believers come well stocked with thesis statements and lengthy, well referenced tomes to back up their version of why it only seem like we have oil coming out of our ears, rather than running out any time soon. For this “esteemed” Professor to be a believer is no surprise-he probably doesn’t “believe” in the current hiatus, either.

  3. jennifersertl says:

    Tim,
    You know I am a fan of your work. I have met Paul Gilding and read his book. I don’t think the TEDTalk gave the full picture. I was full of optimism upon hearing his message thoroughly. I don’t think people respond to forecasts and scenarios. It seems the house must be on fire for people to move and shift. Necessity brings out the best and the worst in people. I believe necessity is requiring people to be more collaborative. Finland is given much credit for innovation and collaboration. They had no choice but to find a way to flex and build strength. Paul’s work has been incredibly validating for my own as everything he talks about points to Agility3R – the need for us to strengthen #resilience #responsiveness #reflection. I must say I agree with you last line regarding courage and wisdom. The only thing I would add would be #discernment – a related but distinct muscle. I so appreciate your rigor and asking us to think deeply and the way you so easily keep philosophers from the past current and in contemporary context. Keep at it. We need your voice.
    Onward,
    Jennifer

    • Thank you Jennifer. I agree that Paul’s message is full of hope. Sadly, this doesn’t come across in his talk (it’s almost like an anti-TED talk in this respect).

      I feel a little guilty associating Paul with ‘scarcity thinking’, as he is actually more of an abundance thinker. His claim that the Earth is full is classic scarcity thinking, yet of course, this is only the first step in a longer argument concerning the renewal of our civilization. I’d be interested to see what he thought of the post, but I don’t want to share it with him myself in case he gets the impression that I’ve written it as some kind of ‘takedown’. This really isn’t my intention. Oh dear, I’m sure my critique could do with a great deal more nuance… It was a difficult post to write, all in all.

  4. Thanks Tim, this post is excellent. I’ve seen one of Paul’s talks and found his ideas very useful. Do you know Peter Diamandis’ book Abundance?

    My view is that we passed “the tipping point” for climate change at least a decade ago and that we are still asking the wrong question: “Should we tackle climate change?” Really we should, for a long time now, have been asking “CAN we tackle it?” – and the reason we don’t even dare to ask that question is because we believe the answer is “No.”

    This might seem deeply pessimistic, but as Tony Juniper has said we are beyond the time to be talking in terms of optimism or pessimism. It is what it is (or what we think it is likely to be, given our limited knowledge). When I discussed with several deep environmentalist friends my view that we can see the collapse happening all around us but cannot see a way to stop it, our best areas for hope were these three:
    – Many, many people are working tirelessly and creatively to find and implement solutions.
    – As the pressure for change accelerates it becomes more possible for things to “flip” suddenly, e.g. a radical new solution to emerge. The powers-that-be “might” just turn off all the power stations overnight and implement a massive geo-engineering climate control solution overnight.
    – The exponential rate of development of new technologies especially solar energy, also water desalination, carbon capture & sequestration, agri/biotech. These tend to scare environmentalists but we are perhaps too far gone for anything less than radical interventions.

    Personally I think we need to be clear that although the changes are ecological, the impacts are social (war) and any solutions will be technological.

    Thank you Tim for writing this piece. It is essential that philosophers engage with these issues. Because we’re still asking the wrong questions.

    Cheers from London,

    Pascale

    • Thanks for the comments Pascale. I really appreciate it. The points you make from a deep ecological point of view are entirely valid.

      I agree (I think) that we have passed the tipping point, crossed the 2 degree threshold. I also think that it is inevitable that we will eventually respond to change (and on a level not currently imagined – I’ve always been fond of the idea of a ‘war on global warming’. My work (so much as I understand it) is to play with the mytho-poetics of the shift. I’m really glad I started writing about abundance + flow.

  5. Reblogged this on Cyprus.Diverse.City.

  6. wow…*snapping fingers*…”courage is a scarcity” that is an interesting perspective…

  7. Thanks Tim for your post. I’ve just been reading Murray Bookchin’s “The Ecology of Freedom” . It challenged me to think more about how we consider nature, and our ideas of dominating and controlling nature. He advocated seeing nature as a series of complex, interdependent systems, which we are part of. Scarcity thinking implies increasing control and domination of nature to serve our ends, a fear campaign that we might lose what we need. To look at nature as abundant is only part of the solution, we need to challenge the ideas of domination and hierarchy over nature which we consider ‘natural’ in our modern capitalist society.
    I’m interested to see where you take your further posts, and I think it’s integral that we consider these basic questions of how we think of ourselves socially, environmentally, and as part of our natural systems.

  8. Reblogged this on syndax vuzz.

  9. Reblogged this on maha's place.

  10. This is a great post, Tim. Not only because it challenges me to think about the Earth itself in a different way, but also myself. I read your blog because I find it difficult to let go of things and change for the better. Maybe it’s about time that I applied abundance thinking to my own life and started noticing the oppurtunities that exist around me instead of those which no longer are. Many thanks.

  11. Really enjoyed this post. It made Deleuze and Guattari accessible to me for the first time in a really visceral way. It also made me think of the possibilities of high-tech time-lapse photography for helping us “see the world as a vast torrent of material flows, intersecting, combining, and creating an abundance of things in a time-frame that exceeds human time” . Imagine if the visual onslaught of advertising and urban planning paraphernalia we are currently subjected to were replaced by a montage of images that convey what you so beautifully evoke with words? That would be a different kind of conditioning of everyday life….

    • Cheers! I was thinking of time lapse when I wrote these lines.

      If climate change has helped us see the world anew, it is by reminding us that human time, the time of our history and cultural experience, is not the same as geological time. We are just a blip on the historical radar. Geological time is vast and it’s all about flow. Deleuze and Guatarri saw this: the Earth is a BwO.

  12. Excellent post, but then i would think that since it fits with a new economic model i’m proposing, that entails a shift to a non-fungible value index that redefines value and recasts relationships http;//netplanetaryvalue.wordpress.com

  13. A few years ago, whilst bemoaning our certain demise with my friend and greatest influencer, Wendell Berry, he looked me straight in the eye and said forcefully, “Sara Day, things are too dire to be ANYTHING but optimistic!!”. And thus I live.

  14. Joe Niederberger says:

    Its just as likely* that 1000 years from now there won’t be any intelligent** life as we know it on earth. Nobody to look back and summarize our philosophical shortcomings; just back to basics – life that simply is born, lives and dies without human consciousness at all. (That may be optimistic in itself.) The ultimate abundant thought may be to get over ourselves as important. Non intelligent life most
    likely is quite abundant. Human like intelligence may in fact be quite scarce***, but so what?

    *if you have no better idea of the odds, you might as well assume 50/50
    **intelligent can only mean human-like, because we know no other
    ***perhaps any human like life that arises here or elsewhere always self destructs in relative short order

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