Implications of a machine economy

Reframing abundance for a sustainable economy

Abundance is one of the promises that comes with renewable energy. “If only we had enough energy, we could get anything we want.” But is that true? And can that be true for everyone in the world? Without destroying the world as we know it? This post goes deeper into psychological and philosophical side of abundance, as opposed to the technical side. Because if we frame it right, abundance might be much closer than we think, and more sustainable too!

A real life example of abundance

When my wife and I moved earlier this year, the movers showed up with one of those huge moving truck. We were living in a rather small 52 square meter apartment, and the movers assessed: “Easy job. Short day.” They quipped we wouldn’t fill half the truck. By far. Fast forward 3 hours and the movers started panicking. This would be a long day. Add another 2 hours and some extra hands, and we are barely able to fit in our bikes. 1

It was abundantly clear there was a problem with perspective. But what was it exactly?

Defining abundance

What is abundance? Merriam-Webster eloquently states a an ample quantity or relative degree of plentifulness, Oxford states it is the state or condition of having a copious quantity of something, and Cambridge goes for an amount that is more than enough. It seems to boil down to: ‘a lot’. But is that really true?

Just like we seems to define wealth as having more than the people around us, could abundance be seen as having more than you had before? Our tiny apartment was stashed with a ton of stuff. All useful, if by useful you mean ‘could come in handy at some point in my average 81 years and 7 months2 life span’. But is it truly useful, if I have to carry it with me that whole time?3

What is abundance really?

While all those things 4 were or will be handy at some point in time, it also made me rethink the concept of abundance.

You see, I’m a firm believer that with the arrival of cheap renewable energy all our needs will be met. And I thought that from that point we will then live in abundance. Except, for most of the western world we already do. There ample food, and shops are open almost 24/7. We’re never cold. We have so much stuff. If somehow we don’t have it, through internet we can order it until 23:59h and have it shipped overnight. And worldwide obesity is becoming a bigger problem than hunger. 5 Could it be that ‘a lot’ might not be an apt interpretation, perhaps due to our psychology?

The psychology of abundance

Our brain is a funny thing. It gives the illusion of being in a stable state, while the opposite is true. Our adaptability as a species stems from our brain plasticity 6. It is a complex adaptive system in itself, constantly reshaping and reassessing itself and it’s beliefs7. In essence constantly moving goalposts.

With this in mind, the concept of abundance becomes tricky. That “ample quantity” transforms into “more than I had yesterday, last week, or last year”. Our quest for abundance might have just become an exponential problem, due to our infinite adaptability.

The influence on the biosphere

More stuff, more comfort, more “plenty” for all this abundance will have to come from somewhere. It’s the law8. Currently we do that by digging big holes in the earth for raw materials and coal, drilling for oil and gas, and turning natural biotopes into farmland. This abundance is coming at a huge costs, and the bill will have to be paid at some point.

The problem isn’t a rational one. Most people understand that this is not sustainable. It’s just that we don’t want to give up the comfort that we’ve grown accustomed to. We probably even want to add some comfort, if possible. 9.

The good thing is: this is possible. And we will even add the desired extra comfort. The only thing we have to give up is ownership.

The burden of ownership

On of my favorite philosophers is André Gorz. 10 In his essay The ideology of The Social Ideology of the Motorcar he states: “Why is the car treated like a sacred cow?” And why do we go out of our way to accommodate that everyone can own, use, and park one wherever, whenever?

…doesn’t a car occupy scarce space? Doesn’t it deprive the others who use the roads (pedestrians, cyclists, streetcar and bus drivers)? Doesn’t it lose its use value when everyone uses his or her own? And yet there are plenty of politicians who insist that every family has the right to at least one car and that it’s up to the “government” to make it possible for everyone to park conveniently, drive easily in the city, and go on holiday at the same time as everyone else, going 70 mph on the roads to vacation spots.

He makes quite an eloquent case against individual car ownership here.11 With a little imagination we can extrapolate his case against private cars to a lot of things in our lives. Do we really need to own for instance a powerdrill, a BBQ, ski equipment, a big car for moving, shopping and holidays, even though we only use these once every so often? Does its private ownership put an undue burden on the planet if we multiply it by a billion or so to accommodate every person on earth?

Time to put gadgets to good use

Up until now individual ownership has had tremendous advantages. Not even 20 years ago it would take days or even weeks to communicate, ship and pay for the acquisition of anything. With the advent of internet this has become an overnight thing. And with that – and the increased density of delivery networks – purchasing something has become less important.

We could even start calculating if the burden of ownership is worth it, when autonomous drones, owned by a DAO 12 can deliver and return any item we need less than once a month, ordered through a smartphone on the go. Because the DAO is a non-profit, we don’t have to worry about paying too much for anything. Paying by the way, with frictionless currency like IOTA13 through a Flash Channel14, we could even have a deposit as part of the transaction, without too complicated smart contracts bogging us down.

“I don’t want a drill, I want holes in my wall”

Instead of owning a drill, we could have an app to order a high powered drill when I want to hang a painting or some shelves. And once I’m done, I want to be able to throw my drill out of the window, and it should be up to the drone to catch it and take it to the next person who needs it, or go to some storage until it is needed again.

In reality the assortment of rentals would be much wider, giving you more choice as a consumer, without have to worry about making the right purchase, storing is, maintaining it and having a dated model in the near future. The DAO would take care of this, as well as deposing of it at the end of its physical or economical life cycle.

Owning up to our responsibility

Abundance and full ownership might be a combination we as a species cannot afford. And when having to choose between the two, who would choose the personal burden of ownership? If we can let go of having to own everything, I think we could live in perpetual abundance and essentially still have everything – and more.

P.S. This is a first draft of how to reframe abundance, to make abundance possible for everyone in a sustainable way. The idea has developed while writing, and as such might have room for improvement. I look forward to replies from you as a reader, and see how this storyline develops in the future.
Meanwhile, you might want to read Envisioning a new society to learn how to see our current society in a different perspective. Natural ecosystems to inspire machine ecosystems can give you inspiration on how to approach current problems in a different fashion, through Biomimicry.

About the author

Bas van Sambeek

Communications strategist, specialized in the positioning of high tech products. I help innovative start-ups and fast growing companies in high tech industries clarify their story through positioning and storytelling.

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Implications of a machine economy