In a world of abundance, to be rich is to be moderate.
An essay to myself on the definition of progress
I recently finished reading The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, a remarkable investigation, journey and manifesto by celebrated chef Dan Barber. The book weaves anecdotes, research, history and opinion into a compelling narrative calling for society to embrace the complexity of an integrated natural ecosystem in which humans can work hand-in-hand with nature to produce an abundance of elevated, sustainable food.
Barber persuasively makes the case that humans can strike a balance between innovation and sustainability, and while there are many memorable moments in the book there is one story that I can’t stop thinking about:
Not so long ago I visited a highly regarded avant-garde restaurant. The menu was cutting-edge, the dishes small and exciting. After a thirty-course meal, the chef brought me back to the kitchen for a tour.
Standing at the pass, he signaled to a cook, who carried a freshly plucked chicken carcass swaddled in cheesecloth. The chicken, the chef explained, had been sent to him from a farming cooperative in France, which had raised the rare bird with the hope of preserving its superior genetics. He admitted that it was probably the best chicken he had ever tasted. But then he turned to me, almost apologetically, and said, “What the hell am I going to do with an entire chicken?”
That the chef could even ask this question is largely due to men like Frank Perdue, who found profit in breaking up the bird and taught us to cherry-pick only the most desirable parts. But it’s due also to the legacy of Fritz Haber; without the endless supply of cheap grain feed allowed by his synthetic fertilizers, our modern meat-eating ways could never have materialized.
Americans have now arrived at a point that was once unthinkable: there is no upper limit to the amount of meat we can consume.
The chef’s inability to fully utilize the full chicken is both surprising and yet entirely predictable in today’s world in which increased output in farm fields and increased engagement in Facebook feeds are intellectual challenges to be solved. We employ the smartest engineers, scientists, financiers and economists in the world to develop creative solutions that increase efficiency and drive growth, and to optimize for productivity, yield and engagement.
There is no doubt that this system and relentless focus has produced an economy of staggering wealth that supports 7 billion people with a better average quality of life than any other time in human history; this passage from The Third Plate, however, has stuck with me because it is a perfectly articulated example of a disconnect between how we measure progress and how we define actual progress I’ve never quite been able to reconcile:
Why do we use GDP as a macro proxy for quality of life? And why is all growth and efficiency considered a net positive by default?
Up until the last 40 or 50 years, GDP growth has served as a useful rule of thumb for politicians and economists seeking to improve average quality of life — yes, the pursuit of growth resulted in avoidable human and natural tragedies such as child labor and mass deforestation, but the absolute and relative rise of a global population that needn’t worry about the next meal on its plate or shelter over its head is the greatest achievement in mankind’s history. Increasing GDP has meant increased life expectancy, more work opportunities and (for some) improved access to leisure; GDP growth helped hundreds of millions of people work their way further up Maslow’s pyramid of needs. In short, GDP growth has been good for society.
But at some point in the last 30 or 40 years this rule of thumb reached the end of its useful life. Today we live in a world of abundance. Unequally distributed, yes, but abundant nonetheless. And in a world of abundance, costs associated with further growth ultimately exceed the benefits.
I broadly trace 3 landmarks in this transition from a world of scarcity to a world of abundance — the introduction of Norman Borlaug’s “miracle” dwarf wheat in the early 1960’s, the reopening of the Chinese market to the world in the early 1980’s, and the compounding impacts from the introduction of the Personal Computer in the late 80's, the mass adoption of the internet in the early 2000’s, and the global explosion of smartphones in the 2010’s.
We know we live in a world of abundance when the marginal cost of an extra chicken to produce, a plastic iced coffee cup to manufacture or a blog post to publish (like this one!) is effectively zero. It is a testament to the global economy that we can essentially have a limitless supply of desired goods and services for no incremental cost, but when marginal costs are zero, the fundamental equations that have driven globalist politics and capitalism to such success begin to fall apart.
We are already witnessing negative consequences today as the rapid transition from scarcity to abundance has created its own set of social problems that range from annoying to existential: push notifications, the obesity epidemic, nationalist politics, the “productivity paradox”, global markets awash with unproductive liquidity, mass species extinction and climate change are all problems wrought by applying world-of-scarcity business models and mental frameworks to a world-of-abundance reality.
How we deal with the transition to abundance and whether we can overcome our innate human desires to be protective of resources we “own” and to accumulate more will be the fundamental challenge that determines our ability to solve world of abundance caused problems (e.g. climate change).
Think about that age-old interpretation of the American Dream — to give one’s child a life better than you had. In the world of abundance that we live in, I am convinced that all of the children born today have the potential to live a better life than their parents, despite earning less and being forced to tackle the consequences of over-consumption and profligacy. But defining “a better life” requires a re-evaluation of what we want to achieve in life, recognizing that the rules for living in a world of abundance are radically different to the rules of a world of scarcity.
In a world of abundance, to be rich is to be moderate. Satisfaction is derived not from production or consumption, but restraint.
When we know we have the ability to consume or produce a good or service, but determine that doing so is likely to produce welfare costs that exceed the benefits, we are being cognizant of our place in our society, species and planet. Exercising restraint helps us to elevate the concerns of others alongside our own, which in turn brings us closer to them.
Cycling or taking public transport instead of driving, buying produce from a farmers market, eating a primarily plant-based diet, and volunteering our time to help others are simple examples of this lifestyle. Each example is inefficient at achieving its end goal when compared with contemporary alternatives, but that is exactly the point: in a world of abundance we don’t take the inefficient route because we have to, but rather we are making a conscious choice to take the route to be cognizant of others (and in turn derive internal satisfaction that can resonate with the heart and soul).
Similarly, the value of inefficiencies and elevating the concerns of others can be scaled up and applied to organization and structural systems more broadly. In a world of scarcity, the efficient allocation of resources was a valuable goal that led to the ability to produce more value with the same finite resources, and this naturally led to giant corporate organizations that capture the lion’s share of value in today’s global market.
When resources are removed as a constraint in a world of abundance, the “value” that is currently being captured at the corporate level should instead flow down to the individual level. Organizations should become more fluid and collaborative, losing the corporate identity as personal identities and recognition grow stronger. Yes, we’d lose efficiencies associated with allocating overhead to a single cost center, and yes, the goods and services produced might lack the professional sheen that a hyper-efficient corporation would produce, but it would be rich with life, authenticity and context that brings meaning into the world. It’s why heirloom tomatoes, with their imperfect quirks and inefficient yields, feel so much more real than their perfectly round and red, high-yielding, GMO-produced counterparts.
Etsy, Airbnb and Google have to some extent embraced the values of an organization in a world of abundance, but when profits and voting rights still accrue to a corporate entity owned by shareholders it is extremely difficult to sustainably avoid the mindset of a world of scarcity — that growth and efficiency is necessary at all costs; I believe the next wave of high growth organizations looking to succeed in a world of abundance will leverage blockchain infrastructure to create value at the level of the individuals and groups of individuals who participate in the value creation, recognizing that we all succeed when we help each other succeed. The proof-of-work concept that powers the decentralized bitcoin network has been labelled inefficient, but this inefficiency is helping to empower individuals in a resilient, socially scalable manner.
A world of abundance is a world of unlimited potential, viewed through the right mental framework, and it is for this reason that I remain optimistic about the child born today, even if their “better” life doesn’t look anything like the lives imagined for them by their parents and grandparents.
Growth and efficiency are not evil, but they are also not positive by default. In my 25 years on the planet, I have spent a disproportionate amount of time lauding the innovations that drive further growth and not enough time reflecting on living an elevated life of meaning and moderation in the world of abundance we’ve already created, and working to ensure everyone can participate in it.
The best way to tackle many of the problems we face today is to recognize and accept that the transition to a world of abundance should change the fundamental way we define progress. Consider this my acknowledgement.