Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Scarcity or Abundance?

While I am back into my crazy travel routine, crisscrossing Asia and trying to give a shape, finally, to our training business, the question whether we live in an age of scarcity or of abundance dominated my thoughts. I have spoken to people about this, and also privately debated the concepts: I even made an earlier post on this blog talking about my anguish for not being able to accept abundance paradigm when I actually see so much misery across the world.

Anguish, because I am also mindful of the fact that most of these miseries are created by the scarcity mentality in the first place. While I mocked Chris Anderson's concept of FREE and talked about zero-pricing death, life and time, I am also conscious that unless we can move into the abundance paradigm, we don't really escape our animal selves and the narrow spheres we live in. Unless we feel free from scarcity, we can not really give; unless we feel the abundance, we can not overcome the fears that dominate our lives and restrict our possibilities.

The answer, however, was lying somewhat in front of my eyes all the time. I was confused between our physical realm and our cognitive realm, two different worlds that we live in at the same time. Scarcity is an unavoidable reality in our physical realm; there is a finite limit to the air, water, time and all other resources, and lots of time, it is a zero-sum game. However, this isn't true as far as our cognitive realm is concerned, there is no zero-sum game going on there and one person's gain isn't necessarily have to come at the cost of the other person.

Now, the fact is that our physical sense of reality still dominates our world of cognition and hence, we are always rushed, fearful and overbearing. This is, of course, a legacy of the industrial age and the fact that we have discovered this common currency called MONEY which helped us reduce everything, including the two different worlds of physical reality and cognition, into a single set of measurement. The sad truth is our physical sense of inadequacy has taken over our ability to think.

But it does not have to be so. In fact, in today's world, it should actually be the opposite. My big fear about the abundance thinking is the environment. I keep thinking whether we shall jump into the abundance bandwagon and drain out every precious drops of water and air by consuming more. But, then, I came across this example, which read a lot like what I am concerned about, in Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's new book - SuperFreakonomics. They write at length about an worldwide concern about urban environmental crisis. Quite like today, just that this happened at the turn of the Nineteenth century and the source of the crisis was - hold your breath - Horse Manure! In 1898, New York hosted the first International Urban Planning conference and the agenda was dominated by the problem of Horse manure and how this is making our cities unviable. Scarcity, right, a scary kind of scarcity of fresh air and livable environment, more like today. In fact, the Urban Planning conference broke up ahead of the schedule, as no solution could be found and the work seemed fruitless.

And, then, suddenly, the problem completely disappeared! With the advent of electric cars and automobiles at the turn of the century, horse manure was suddenly a thing of history, so much so that the crisis isn't even remembered today. This read like a Chicken Soup for the Environmentally Stricken Soul, and I felt so much better about man's ability to work out ways around intractable crisis. Those who have seen the recent version of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL will remember John Cleese making the statement to Keanu Reeves' Klatu: We change only at the precipice! So apt, and our history is full of such examples. And, I almost know the reasons why - at the precipice, as we stand to lose everything, it becomes easier to make the transition from scarcity to abundance mentality: And, that transition including solves the problem.

Interestingly, I saw a number of new inventions this time around which reaffirmed my faith in human being's ability to work its way out of trouble. For example, I saw LED lighting which consumes 70% less energy, generate almost no heat and can be made to self-power with an additional solar panel. I also came across this nifty tool which can generate water from the air - a device that can solve water problems in many parts of the world. In the latter case, when I enquired why such a wonderful tool is already not in wide use, I was told of two limitations. First, this consumes a lot of electricity, a scarce commodity in developing world, but eminently solvable with the application of solar energy, which is plentiful in most water scarcity zones. The second problem is more difficult - the device is patented and retails for about $30,000 a piece. Of course, some governments will put in the money and some charities will do their best, but our scarcity mentality here - one that is enshrined the way we treat intellectual property and ownership - will limit the possibility of which problems we are really able to solve.

So, I stand converted to abundance mentality. But I just know that our cognitive realm is so dominated by our physical realm and industrial age thinking, our concept of ownership and worth is so dated, that it is hard for us to work to our full potential. It is difficult to resolve, but we are increasingly becoming aware that the rules that govern our thoughts are not necessarily the smartest we are capable of coming up with, and if we were only half as good in overcoming our cognitive limitations as we are to deal with the physical ones, the world would have been a much better place already. However, in keeping with the spirit of the day, I shall sign off in an optimistic note: I know we are working at it and history shows that we always overcome, if only at the precipice!

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