The Economics of Abundance

The Economics of Abundance

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The transformation of human society out of its hunter-gatherer origins has been, by all biological and evolutionary standards, exceedingly rapid. According to the archaeological and genetic evidence, modern humans have existed for upwards of 150,000 years. Yet it is only in the last 10,000 that we have begun to cultivate agriculture, domesticate livestock, build cities, develop written language, monetary systems, the scientific method and modern technological civilisation. As our civilisation has evolved, the means and manner through which we satisfy our economic needs has also gone through a rapid transformation. The story of humanity in the last 10,000 years in my view has been one of the conquering of scarcity, the at-first gradual and now rapid growth of material superabundance

It is hard to say precisely where the move toward superabundance began. Suffice to say that all animals might like (in the most primal and unselfconscious sense of the word) to be overflowing with the environmental ingredients for material survival — food, water, shelter. Yet taking the social and technological leap toward creating an environment of abundance is quite another thing. This organisational leap to create an abundant environment would seem to have occurred multiple times in the history of life. Today for example besides humans, colonies of bees work together to collectively farm honey, chimpanzees create and use tools to hunt and fish. Yet the globe-spanning complexity and abstraction of human systems is quite astonishing. In the West today, we live in houses formed out of  a myriad of materials constructed and maintained by a wide variety of professions. We have refrigerators — themselves a complex technical construction — stocked with foods produced and shipped from around the entire world. We use communications equipment that can beam and pipe data, images and sounds anywhere around the world. The processes of production have become increasingly abstract — both in their location (very often very far from the end-user), in technical specialisation, in finance, and in the simple fact that many processes that were once done by humans are now automated. 

The hugeness of this transformation is very under-appreciated, and I think that this is down to the fact that no individual human has lived through its entire scope. Individual humans are relatively short-lived creatures. New generations are born into and adapt into the current technological framework. Children born today are from birth acculturated into the internet and mobile communication, technologies that my generation watched develop. An individual may see a fair amount of change within their lives — change with which they very often fail to keep pace of — yet not the broad sweep of the entirety of human civilisation. My eldest living close relative is (I believe) a 92-year old Great Uncle who was 18 in 1939. Certainly, the human apparatuses have gone through a lot of change in that time yet the full sweep of human technology — from animal skins and berries, to caves and fire, to ploughs and wheels, to swords and shields, to walls and castles, to irrigation and roads, to galleons and compasses, to steam engines and penicillin, to production lines and automobiles, to aeroplanes and radios, to democracies and welfare states, to rockets and satellites, to robots and computers is largely obscured. 

The economics of a hunter-gatherer society — or for the creatures from which humans evolved — was, I speculate, relatively simple. Get enough calories to keep warm and function and you had the opportunity to breed, to pass on genes to your offspring. Raise your offspring successfully, and they might have the opportunity to pass your genes onto another generation. The fossil record suggests that this pattern went on for millions of years. Modern humanity's ancestors were kept in check by the scarcity that often appeared in nature — the predators that roamed the Earth, the growth of food, rainfall, weather, climate & ice ages, volcanism, etc. Just 70,000 years ago, it is estimated that the global population of humans fell dramatically to just 2,000 individuals due to the after-effects of the Toba supervolcano eruption

These ululations of scarcity and their dramatic effect on human population and the apparatus of society have hugely decreased. Perhaps this is down to luck as much as human ingenuity — that we have simply got a lucky break and been spared the large-scale disasters and changes that afflicted our ancestors. And perhaps scarcity may dramatically return as a result of future (man-made) climate change, or a natural catastrophe like a supervolcano eruption, infectious outbreak, or mega-tsunami. Or perhaps the likeliest outcome is that the general trend toward superabundance will continue. 

Discussing the notion of superabundance with others — both in terms of economies today, and economies in the future — is often a rather frustrating experience, as their reaction to it is often denial. Perhaps here in Britain we have inherited our Protestant ancestors' work ethic and culture of what can only be called reverence of scarcity and austerity. While it is widely accepted that we live in a wealthy age — especially in comparison to our Victorian, mediaeval or bronze age ancestors — I frequently hear the objection that this age is due to end due to some combination of laziness, profligacy, resource depletion and Malthusian constraints. I do not deny outright any of these possibilities, yet the historical record suggests that neither is necessary or even likely. When Malthus was writing prior to the invention of modern agriculture — when less than 1 billion people inhabited the Earth —  it was widely proposed that the land could not be fertile enough to support continued population growth, leading to Malthus' projections of an overpopulation catastorphe.  Yet thanks to the agricultural revolution today over seven billion people inhabit the planet. And contrary to Malthus' belief that the human desire to reproduce was insatiable, in industrialised societies birth rates have fallen close to replacement rates, suggesting current population levels are entirely sustainable. In the last 100 years we have become wealthy and productive enough to support universal welfare nets. And universal welfare has not made us unproductive and lazy as many project; worker productivity continues to climb. And while we are at present experiencing a tumultuous transition (the source of much peak oil doomerism) from non-renewable hydrocarbon energy toward renewables, the massively falling costs of renewables suggests that this difficult transition will sooner or later be over, and energy costs will fall back once again.

These ongoing industrial revolutions, of course, cause great upheavals. As Joseph Stiglitz has noted, the Great Depression of the 1930s can be seen as a great displacement of labour in agriculture thanks to technological improvement. Stiglitz sees a parallel between today's slump and that of the 1930s; in the 1930s we were transitioning out of agriculture, and today we are transitioning out of manufacturing. I think this is a large simplification. Today, we are transitioning into automation, and not just in manufacturing. While automation in manufacturing is due to grow hugely in the coming years thanks to the technologies of 3-D printing and nanoengineering, automation threatens the roles not just of skilled labourers and assembly workers, but also of many service workers too, including lawyers, food service workers, retail workers, soldiers, train and truck drivers, nurses, radiographers, computer programmers, journalists, etc. Humans are increasingly being pushed back into the only area that automation does not yet threaten — creative and imaginative roles. 

As the march of the robots continues, society and big business may become so rich and unemployment and labour displacement may grow so great that basic income policies — redistribution policies ensuring a minimal income level for all citizens — become inevitable to support the displaced masses who have been driven out of work by automation, and to support demand in the economy. In the most advanced economies today such as Switzerland, there are already such proposals. Ultimately, such policies are not necessarily such a great shift from the redistributive welfare systems of today. The difference, of course, is that the welfare nets of today are set up to incentivise work, and keep a workforce fit for manual work. The welfare nets of a superabundant future in which automation has displaced most labour will need to be designed to give people the resources and skills to live a fulfilling life in a world where their manual labour may not be needed. The fact that our economies have not collapsed over the previous industrial revolutions and since the birth of the welfare state is reassurance that such a transition is possible. 

In the much longer run, universally available reassemblers — a kind of advanced 3-D printer — combined with abundant solar, wind and nuclear power may make material scarcity an altogether distant memory for humanity. At that point, basic income may become unnecessary. Until then, it seems like a simple way of dealing with the fallout from the massive transformations our industrial society is undergoing.


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