Real Wealth: Redefining Abundance in an Era of Limits

The US is among the wealthiest countries in the world, and yet it is filled with people, rich and poor, who are anxious about their future and who feel that they don't have enough.

Our economic life is defined by scarcity—Adam Smith wrote of economics as the maximization of each individual's self-interest within a context of scarcity. Each player must compete for the resources needed to sustain life or to increase comfort.

Why does scarcity play such a central feature in our lives in an era of such material abundance?       

Bernard Lietaer, a former Belgian central banker and currency trader, is in the midst of writing a book on this topic to be called Beyond Greed and Scarcity. He builds on a Jungian thesis that states that when a culture (or an individual) suppresses an archetype, it manifests in its shadow form. For millennia, western civilization has suppressed an archetype that was fundamental to earlier civilizations, that of the Great Mother. This suppression took place in forms ranging from witch burning to legal restrictions on women's rights, to philosophical treatises on the fundamental inferiority of women.       

The archetype of the Great Mother represents more than the female gender, however; it also encompasses the concept of sufficiency and generosity. When that archetype is suppressed, the two opposing shadows, scarcity and greed, appear, linked by fear, according to Lietaer. After thousands of years of the suppression of the Great Mother archetype, it is no surprise, therefore, that Adam Smith and other philosophers of his era took scarcity and greed to be fundamental components of human nature.

Sufficiency and Generosity

But there have been other cultures, and still are, that have sufficiency and generosity as the foundational principles of their economic system and their way of life. Native Americans, for example, gained status through giving things away. Resources were to be used with care out of respect for the Earth and to ensure that future generations would have enough.

In modern American culture as well, there is a yearning for a way of living not based on scarcity and greed. A survey commissioned by the Merck Family Fund shows that most Americans highly value family life, responsibility, and friendship--but believe that other Americans are more concerned with material prosperity. Approximately 28 percent of those surveyed had voluntarily made changes in their lives in the past five years which resulted in lower earnings—and few regretted making the change.

Generosity (caring for children, for example) and sufficiency (making enough but not too much money) are powerful motivators—not just greed and scarcity.

Abundance in a World of Ecological Limits

Can we seriously consider moving away from scarcity and greed as the basis for our way of life in an age when we are coming up against the Earth's carrying capacity?

Becoming cognizant of the real limits of the Earth's carrying capacity is one of the central tasks of our time. William Rees' work on "ecological footprints" shows the actual land base required to provide the resources to a city in the developed world, and to provide a sink for its wastes. This land in many cases is located in far distant parts of the planet, often in poverty-stricken areas that can ill afford to have their resources sent elsewhere. People displaced from land that is used to grow export crops or to develop factories for production of export products are then forced on to marginal land or into virgin areas.

We can calculate our sustainable fair share of the world's resources. The organizers of Sustainable Europe are developing such an assessment. That we find a way to live within the carrying capacity of the planet is essential, but only a relatively small number of people are likely to make significant changes in their lives based on their understanding of sustainability and equity. After all, billions of dollars are spent by Madison Avenue and others convincing us to do otherwise.

Moving towards Abundance

It may be easier to let go of over-consuming resources that are truly scarce when we realize that what is most valuable in life is almost infinitely abundant—love, caring for each other, closer communion with a spiritual life, appreciation for the natural world, and the creativity and surprises of the human spirit.

If we seek to fulfill our non-material needs with material purchases, to paraphrase Donella Meadows, we can never have enough. Our needs for family, friends, community, and a spiritual life get put off while we work hard to pay off the debt from purchasing all those things that were supposed to make us happier. The less time we have for meeting our real needs, the more needy we feel, and the vicious cycle continues.

This dynamic takes a particularly insidious form in poor communities--where the longing for material abundance promoted by commercial messages is almost certain to go unfulfilled.
Cornel West, Harvard professor of theology and Afro-American studies, critiques the "culture of consumption" and the "images of comfort, convenience, machismo, femininity, violence, and sexual stimulation that bombard consumers" in his book Race Matters:
"These seductive images contribute to the predominance of the market-inspired way of life over all others and thereby edge out non-market values—love, care, service to others—handed down by preceding generations. The predominance of this way of life among those living in poverty-ridden conditions, with a limited capacity to ward off self-contempt and self-hatred, results in the possible triumph of the nihilistic threat in Black America."

Building on Sufficiency and Generosity

What would happen if, instead of life becoming increasingly tied up in the cash economy, where scarcity and greed are the underlying principles, we were to move to what Jonathan Rowe calls the social economy—a way of living in which we do things for one another out of neighborliness, because we know the favor will be returned, or simply because we like to be of service.

What if our marketplaces were filled with the unique offerings of a region and its peoples? If trips to the market were not just to buy products, but to meet others in our community, to get to know those who produce things, to feel more connected to the seasonal rhythms of the surrounds.

What if people started meeting in each others' homes to talk about what is really important to them—what they really want out of life. And with the support and clarity that emerged from that process, began to make changes in their lives.

And suppose people started saying "no" to greed and consumerism, or better yet to poke fun at it like the people at Adbusters do with their "Culture Jamming". And we began to dream a new American Dream and to build a movement of voluntary simplicity.

What if, instead of defining ourselves as isolated individuals seeking to maximize our individual gain, we were to develop a richer central project—one that was deeply satisfying, soulful, and sustainable, as Duane Elgin suggests.

Perhaps it's time to bring back the Great Mother archetype—to infuse our culture, our relationships, our everyday lives with generosity, and to recognize that we are blessed with the capacity for almost infinite abundance of the things that really matter.


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