Thursday, January 26, 2017

Abundance and Scarcity

Our human existence is marked by stories. Stories are the way that we make sense of the world around us. They frame our discussions, but they also frame the way that we experience the bare facts of existence. All reality that we experience takes place in the context of the stories that we tell ourselves, and they are essential to our human nature. Without them, we would have no idea how to comprehend the events that make up our lives and the lives of those around us.

These stories come from a variety of sources: our culture, our families, religious beliefs, and even our own personal conclusions. When I teach students about the concept of “worldview”, it is really these stories that I am referring to. Of course, these stories can change over time as we find evidence that might contract a long-held belief. Still, as these larger stories form the framework for our thought processes, it can be very difficult to challenge the overriding elements of the story that we take for granted.

What we are seeing now in our country and our world is, in my view, a grand conflict between competing stories. It is a somewhat gross simplification for me to suggest that there are only two opposing stories right now, but for the sake of discussion I will focus on just two. Let’s call them the story of Abundance and the story of Scarcity.

The story of Abundance begins with the fundamental belief that the universe provides the sufficient means for life – and not just mere existence, but “abundant” life. This means that the raw materials for all living things to exist harmoniously and to live relatively well are provided by nature itself. This story does not require nor preclude any sort of religious belief – a Christian, an animist, or an atheist could all believe this story with equal consistency. The point is that the means for living well are there, not how they got there or who or what perpetuates them.

The definition of living “well” is, of course, subjective, but in the Abundance story it is generally agreed that living well involves taking no more out of the system of resources than is required for a fully realized existence. Boundaries are necessitated by the realities of the delicate balance required to sustain this optimal life. If one group of beings starts taking more than their share, it will cause the entire system to suffer, but the system is self-correcting in that the takers will eventually feel the consequences of their actions. In other words, the greedy animal soon finds himself starving when he can’t control his appetite. Whether this is enforced by divine providence, karma, or just the laws of nature doesn’t matter as much as the recognition that it will happen.

In the story of Abundance things have intrinsic value. They are all equally valuable merely by the fact of their existence, and also because the existence of all things is interconnected. Power is largely an illusory concept because the real power lies in nature, the universe, or in some form of divinity. Therefore power is best used as a tool to work with the greater forces of nature, not to subdue or contain them in some concept of certainty. An archetypal person for the Abundance story might the Farmer, who works with and respects the land, and seeks to know it without dominating or controlling it while at the same time benefiting from it.  

Those whose realities are formed by the story of Abundance recognize that the present world does not operate according to this paradigm. Therefore, they work, as they can, to restore the essential balance as much as possible, by whatever actions they can. They do this because they have the faith that the balance does exist, and can be restored even when it seems unlikely. Martin Luther King Jr’s quote referring to “the arc of the moral universe” that “bends toward justice” is an example of the Abundance story being conceptualized and articulated.

In the story of Scarcity, the benevolent nature of the universe is called into question. Instead of sufficiency, this story tells of a lack of resources. Since resources are inherently limited, the questions of survival and of flourishing are matters of competition – competition within the system with other beings, and competition with the system itself.

Like the story of Abundance, the story of Scarcity does not belong solely to the religious or non-religious. There are plenty of belief systems on all sides of the spiritual spectrum that hold to some version of this story. The bottom line is that the universe is essentially a hostile place to life, and in order to continue surviving, living things must to some extent take matters into their own hands. This is the largely pessimistic counterpoint to the story of Abundance.

Boundaries are also necessary according to this story, but primarily for protection against the forces that seek to diminish life. These elements of chaos are seen as being at war with life, and thus need to be held back, subjugated, or eradicated entirely. There is a strong dualism at work in this story – the binary opposition between dark and light, good and evil, chaos and control. Things are identified based upon which side of the dichotomy they fall.

Value and power both play important roles in the story of Scarcity. Value is based primarily on utility, whether in the form of expertise, strength, economic value, or other forms. Things increase in value as utility increases, and more valuable things are held in higher esteem. Power is closely connected to this, because power is necessary to retain value, lest it be taken away by others. Power is also necessary to control the unpredictable elements of both human and wild nature. Knowledge adds to power by increasing certainty, which allows for greater means of control. The archetypal person is the industrialist who uses knowledge (and its resultant product, technology) to bring will to power.

As I said before, this is a very simplistic categorization of worldviews. However, I would risk to say that some version of either of these two stories underpins the thinking of many people in our modern world. It is because of the deep differences in these stories that two people can experience the same events, and yet interpret them so differently. How could they not, when the ends lead to such different conclusions? It is from these differences that we see the rifts in our society, which have become that much more clearly defined in a very short period of time.

How can we stand on common ground, when our stories give us radically different meanings to the very ground itself? Do we resort to tribalism? Do we resign to nihilism, giving up on the hope of ever finding a solution? At this point I’m not sure, but I do know that conversation is required. But if there is to be any conversation, it begins with identifying and owning our stories. 

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