scarcity & the end of the familiar

One of the most influential books I’ve read (so much so that this may be my second reference to it) is Scarcity, which details the effects of scarcity on the way we live our lives. I think about it quite frequently, and notice the effects of it everywhere. And if basic decency for your fellow human beings isn’t a good enough argument to treat others well, the book provides more than enough reason to have a little more patience with your waiter, or to have some understanding when your gardener shows up late a few times. Anyway, I thought of it a bit more than I normally do a few days ago when it was discussed on Hidden Brain, and an episode about the holes we dig ourselves into and the difficulty we run into when we try to climb out. These holes include the way our awkwardness might prevent us from finding friends to develop social skills that would make us less awkward, short-term leans with high interest rates that make our debt exponentially larger, and eating lots of sugar when we’re short on sleep, and consequentially getting less sleep the next night.

There are all kinds of examples in our everyday lives, some low-stakes and some high-stakes. In essence, the loss of bandwidth to make long-term decisions occurs disproportionately in those with less resources than those with lots of them, which increases inequality. I think one of the most clear areas where the effects of scarcity can be seen is in businesses. Imagine you’re working at a wildly successful firm; you probably won’t have managers breathing down your neck or lots of competition. You’ll probably be able to get away with slightly longer lunches and you might eat food the company provides for you. But what happens when business slows? Scarcity bleeds into environments and ways of thinking as soon as things get tough.

Of course, I’m about to reference another podcast (an incredibly excellent one at that). It’s called S-Town and you really oughta listen to it. Anyway, it’s a little tricky to explain where what intrigued me came from (spoilers!), but one of the main characters is intensely concerned about the effects of climate change on the world. There’s a quote in a later episode from a manifesto he wrote about the idea that missions of equality and freedom for everyone were luxuries of a world before the damning effects of a warming globe. It got me thinking about the fact that scarcity will affect us all as resources that we take for granted now dwindle. Today is not the day that white Americans feel the effects of it, but I’m sure people in the developing world and communities on islands or that depend on a warming ecosystem are feeling the effects.

I got a little sick when perusing these financial disclosures of government officials, noting that most of them owned rental properties, had some sort of trust from their parents, and likely hadn’t felt any large degree of financial scarcity (and therefore most other types of scarcity as well). And even if they had at some point, one of the principles of moving from the proletariat to the bourgeoisie is how easy it is to lose the parts of oneself that came from being a member of the proletariat. We don’t need more rich people with disrupted incentive structures, only influenced by money and power and only wanting grow in money and power, telling us what we need.

Why does this matter? Because the only people telling us climate change isn’t happening, or shouldn’t be prioritized, are people with enough resources to live through the turmoil and perhaps apocalyptic effects of global warming. Isn’t that the big lesson in any middle school history class? That who is telling you something matters just as much as what they’re telling you? We need to take a step back and ask ourselves, what are they getting out of it? Well, lots of money from businesses that profit off of practices that are detrimental to earth, the kind of money that could make anyone overlook factual information or to place their own short-term self-interest over that of literally billions of other human beings.