I'm not a big fan of Abundance.  

At least not as the word is being used these days:  a movement, a worldview, where what we need is available to us in abundance, the problem only comes in when we want the wrong things.  I'm pretty sure this has grown out of the Gratitude and Mindefulness movements, and their bastard love-child is just as vacuous IMHO.

In church today, our bridge minister spoke about abundance, and how there was enough in the world for everyone, and that we are being liberated by our advances in science, technology and society which allows us to pursue meaning in our lives, doing the work we would do for free: volunteering to share our knowledge and our art and our talents.

As an example of how we are "freed", he spoke of his youth and how his family could afford an encyclopedia, something not every family could, but now information was free on the internet (he cited Wikipedia, but I'll leave THAT issue for the moment) and that people have smart phones and computers in their homes and free access to computers in libraries...

And that's about where I started having to bite down HARD on my tongue.

Because, yes, here in LA there are a LOT of neighborhood libraries, and they often have computers.  After school, you can wait for literally hours to get on a computer, because not everyone DOES have a computer in their home... and yes, you can get a smart phone (one per household ) for free if you're low income in California, but you don't have the bandwidth to do homework on it, and not everyone lives in LA or anywhere in California.

There are people who live very far from libraries.  But that there is an "abundance" in free information is something so taken for granted here that even our social justice leadership seems ignorant that it could be any other way for others.

He spoke of the advances in robotics that "free" us from unfulfilling labor... of harvesting machines and self checkouts and robots that build things.  And all I could think of was the wasteland that was once a booming auto and steel city: Lackawanna, NY, near where I'd owned my home. Does the cashier, the field hand, the auto-worker feel "free" with the loss of their jobs? Are there enough jobs to move on to other things? Can we live in abundance because we are now all teachers and artists and poets?

We all know that creating scarcity to increase "value" is a problem in our society. Telling people who have nothing to be happy with nothing (an updated telling of the old "The best things in life are free" line) doesn't take into account that while we are physical being on this earth, our bodies have certain needs.  Abundance is a concept related to self-actualization, the highest level of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.  Many people who are NOT food and shelter secure, are still sitting at the bottom of Maslows, and are in no place to "consider the lilies of the field" or any other religious or socially motivated version of "shut up and be thankful for what you've got"

If you are in want for food and shelter, it's a lot more difficult to devote your time to pondering the beauty of the clouds and teaching kids music and dance.  That's NOT to say impossible, because for many of us at the bottom of the pyramid, that type of thing is what gives our lives enough meaning to continue to struggle to live it. 

There is an innocent naivete about thinking that everyone up and down the pyramid want, at their core, the freedom to share and help others.  Up top, where you've got food and clean water and a roof over your head, sure... you aren't risking much.  But down at the bottom we're NOT talking about abundance, we're talking Plato's Prisoner's Dilemma.

For those who don't know, the Prisoner's Dilemma goes like this:  You have two prisoners who can't communicate. They are both told, "if you rat out your buddy, and they don't talk, you go free, your buddy's going to do time.  I can't let you both off, though, so if you both rat out the other, you'll both have to do some time, though not as much, and if you're both quiet, I'll lock you both up for that, but I can't make the original charge stick."

You'd think that, if we are altruistic by nature, we would always choose NOT to rat out our buddy.  But we also count on our buddy to understand the same, and know if we double cross them, we get the maximum benefit.  There are a number of game shows that have been based on this, including Golden Balls, The Wall, and the notorious 2012 game show, Take It All.

The thing about this is that the risk is not equal for everyone, which seems to be Plato's original supposition.  Say prisoner 1 is 20 years old, and his family members have a history of living well into their 90s.  Perhaps 5 years is not so much as hypothetical prisoner B, who is dying of cancer and only has a few more years to live.  To him, a year could be half his remaining days, and 5 years is a life sentence.

The same is true with money.  If you don't have enough to provide for your basic needs, altruism means a great deal more self sacrifice than if you are being generous with your second vacation funds.

Perhaps there is some value in the privileged talking among themselves about this "abundance"... because there IS an abundance of housing in the nation. There are more empty houses and apartments than there are homeless, and it's only the greed of the land owners and municipalities that keep the rents high, waiting for the rich to rent, or the richer to buy, maximizing profit over the lives of others. 

There is plenty off food in the world, if we care to distribute it.  We can also eat healthier and more sustainably... if we chose to not over indulge in our privilege.  (and for goodness sake, PLEASE help food pantries and soup kitchens distribute a better variety off food than day old bread and government surplus cans)

The one good thing about the abundance concept is that it preaches that we have what we need on this planet. It doesn't, however, teach us how to use it responsibly, which is the issue.  People gather, people horde, because they believe they advance by having more, by creating scarcity to drive up the value of what they have.  Like the prisoner, they want to risk as little as possible, but have no awareness (or, in some cases, care) of what the risks are to others.  There are times that I fear that the one thing we DO have in free abundance is greed, and that that greed is the product of our idealism which ties personal worth with financial worth, something I've blogged about extensively in the past.

And when we talk about abundance, we should be very careful to understand that the things the privileged want (freedom, expression, sharing) is often very different than the needs of those without privilege (food, shelter, clothing).

We don't all have computers in our home.  We won't all feel "free" losing our jobs to robots and self checkouts.  We don't all have the luxury of time, energy, or health to volunteer or create art.  Abundance is for the Eloi.  When people talk about "abundance", all I hear is "let them eat cake."


  1. Hi Kate!

    I help out at a food bank located in a small town church basement in rural Canada. Even in left-leaning Canada we have far too many people who are food and housing insecure. The food that is donated and given out is chosen mostly for its shelf life, though some things are frozen (bread, hot dogs, ground beef). It is almost impossible to eat a balanced diet even with the vouchers we give out for fresh veg and milk- there's no way that what we can give can possibly stretch to fill the growing need. Our social safety net has been eroding for decades.

    One of the things I noticed early on is the way that social inequality plays out in the food bank with one handing out and the other taking what is given. Some things people can choose for themselves but access to other things is curtailed, largely to ensure that the supply stretches to serve as many as possible. The differential access was striking. I could feel the desire for these items, and the (not sure if frustration is the word) resentment? anger? of those who were not permitted to select for themselves.

    I was also struck by how people try to maintain some form of choice. It comes across to some volunteers as 'beggars being choosers' (my perception, perhaps that is too harsh, not sure), and at times I have found a few of our clients to be a bit prickly. I think I might be a bit prickly too if my pride had to be swallowed every visit to the food bank.

    A lot of this is perhaps tangential to your post, but it really is about those who have not recognizing how not having affects people. Stopping to smell the roses is all very nice, and indeed important, but a decent meal and housing is necessary before you can even see the roses.

    Re your next post, love listening to the ravens!


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