The outcome may determine the fate of the world.
Scarcity is having less than you feel you need. I’m guessing that most us living on planet Earth in 2014 feel some degree of scarcity. It’s not hard to find evidence that we have less than we need. One in four mammals on the planet face extinction (are we one of them?), and 90% of the large fish (I love my salmon) are already gone. Our aquifers are drying up and we’re turning more of the land we need to grow food into deserts. We’re running out of oil, and just about every other thing that we rely on to support our lifestyle.
In his book, Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines, Richard Heinberg says, “In the course of the present century we will see an end to growth and commencement of decline in all of these parameters:
- Grain production (total and per capita)
- Uranium production
- Climate stability
- Fresh water availability per capita
- Arable land in agricultural production
- Wild fish harvests
- Yearly extraction of some metals and minerals we need (including copper, platinum, silver, gold, and zinc).”
When we look at the increasing scarcity going on in the world and the present population, we can feel the pressures we all face. In the time it takes to read this sentence, somewhere in the world one child will die of hunger. By the time you’ve made it through this paragraph, another will be dead from thirst (or from drinking dirty water to quench that thirst. Things look pretty bleak.
But there are hopeful signs on the other side of the debate on our future. Peter Diamandis, M.D., is CEO of the X Prize Foundation which offers serious prize money to those who can solve some of the world’s most difficult problems. Diamandis says that the prizes,
“Should be able to be won by teams ranging from industry experts to well-funded high school students who don’t know what they can’t do.”
Diamandis, along with best-selling author Steven Kotler have written a hopeful book about our potential future: Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think. The authors rely on exhaustive research and extensive interviews with top scientists, innovators, and captains of industry to explore how four emerging forces—exponential technologies, the DIY innovator, the Technophilanthropist, and the Rising Billion—are conspiring to solve our biggest problems.
“We will soon have the ability to meet and exceed the basic needs of every man, woman, and child on the planet,” say Diamandis and Kotler. “Abundance for all is within our grasp.”
Breaking down human needs by category—water, food, energy, healthcare, education, freedom—Diamandis and Kotler introduce us to dozens and dozens of innovators and industry captains making tremendous strides in each area: Dean Kamen’s “Slingshot,” a technology which can transform polluted water, salt water or even raw sewage into incredibly high-quality drinking water for less than one cent a liter; the Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE which promises a low-cost, handheld medical device that allows anyone to diagnose themselves better than a board certified doctor; Dickson Despommier’s “vertical farms,” which replaces traditional agriculture with a system that uses 80 percent less land, 90 percent less water, 100 percent fewer pesticides and zero transportation costs.
The Psychology of Scarcity Makes Positive Change Difficult
If overcoming scarcity was just a matter of offering a big cash prize to entice some of our most creative minds to use the latest technologies to address our problems, we might feel that within a short period of time, we will all be on Easy Street. But things won’t be that easy. In their book, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Harvard economics professor Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton professor of psychology Eldar Shafir introduces us to the new psychology of scarcity which shows that people living in scarcity actually experience changes in how the brain works that makes it difficult to solve the pressing problems that face humanity.
In another article I wrote, “Low Testosterone and Scarcity: A Glimpse Into the Future of Mankind,” I describe how our focus on low testosterone is an example of the kind of scarcity that is so common in our world today. We also are experiencing limitations in our health-care system (which is really a sick-care system) as we grapple with everything from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.
The authors say,
“Scarcity captures the mind. The mind orients automatically, powerfully, toward unfulfilled needs. Scarcity is more than just the displeasure of having very little. It changes how we think. It imposes itself on our minds.”
Here are some of the ways that scarcity changes our minds:
In describing tunneling Mullainathan and Shafir tell the story of Brian Hunton, a Texas firefighter who died on the job. Hunton didn’t die from smoke inhalation or from the collapse of a burning building. In fact he never made it to the fire. As the fire engine raced to the scene, Hunton fell out of the engine as it made a sharp turn. He hit his head on the pavement and never recovered. He wasn’t wearing his seatbelt.
You’d think that firefighters would be the last ones to forget to put on their seat belt. But Hunton’s case, though tragic, was not unusual. Between 1984 and 2000, motor vehicle collisions accounted for 20 to 25 percent of fire-fighter fatalities. In 79% of these cases the firefighters were not wearing seatbelts.
Mullainathan and Shafir point out that firefighters are dealing with time scarcity. When every minute counts, they become so focused on getting to the fire their mind develops tunnel vision and they don’t pay attention to things “outside the tunnel” such as remembering to wear a seat belt or to being aware of potential obstacles that could cause an accident.
The Bandwidth Tax
When we are focused on scarcity, whether our needs for more time, more money, more food, or more love, our brain function is compromised. Mullainathan and Shafir describe this as creating a “bandwidth tax.” They say that
“bandwidth measures our computational capacity, our ability to pay attention, to make good decisions, to stick with our plans, and to resist temptation.”
Not only does this tax occur when we are dealing with actual scarcity such as not having enough food to eat. It occurs when our minds are overtaxed when we think about the impact of scarcity. I’ve seen this kind of tax in action when I talk to my daughter, Angela, who is living on a low-level of income, is a single parent, and has four children. Not only is money scarce, but she also is constantly dealing with mental anguish of trying to deal with kids problems, make medical appointments, find bus transportation to get to appointments, remember to pick up medications, and a thousand other mind functions that are compromised and overloaded dealing with scarcity.
Lack of Slack
Imagine you’re planning a business trip and you are deciding whether to take a larger suitcase that you’ll have to check or try and get everything you need into a carry-on. Choosing the carry-on you have to be very selective about what you pack. You don’t have extra room for things you may need or for bringing back things you may buy. In an unexpected storm comes up and you didn’t have room to pack your raincoat, you’re in trouble.
In other words, with the smaller bag there is less slack. Whether we’re packing a suitcase, dealing with a tight schedule, or a tight budget, if we don’t have much slack we increase our stress and aren’t able to deal with the inevitable, unforeseen problems that may arise in our busy lives.
Avoiding Collapse and Achieving Abundance Are Achievable
In her book, The Watchman’s Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse, Rebecca Costa says that the underlying problem that has caused the collapse of other cultures, and threatens our own, is our inability to deal with complexity. We still have a brain that was designed to work well in the Stone Age, but it is mismatched to the kinds of challenges we face in modern times.
As a result we end up in gridlock, unable to solve problems that we know could kill us. She suggests that we can change the way our mind handles complexity. But to do that we have to recognize that a mind that is overwhelmed by scarcity does not have the brain-power to create abundance. That’s why the new science of scarcity psychology is so important. If we can solve the scarcity crisis, we have a good chance of truly achieving abundance for all.
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