Lack and the Cultivation of Better

In agriculture, we hear of the fight against natural constraints, for the higher yields necessary to feed the world. In economics in general, talk is of the struggle to gain the highest profits with the scarce resources available. Even in our own lives and for our own happiness, lack is supposed to limit it all: not enough time, not enough money.

And so, we want more. Preferably, now.

With that, life becomes the rat race in which everything goes ever faster and brings ever more dissatisfaction (but also ever more distraction and comforts which to shop!, buy!, have!). “The economy,” in effect, is no longer the economic activities of people, but the profit-making of companies at any cost, which some people profit from handsomely, but only too many (and an increasing number) are left behind by.

At best, notions of sustainability and work-life balance then come in to say that we’d need to strike a balance between what is available, for what and at which rates we use it, of scarce resources same as of our own time and energy.

It seems asking to limit  still further what already limits us, though. It sounds good for others, perhaps, but not really good, exciting, promising – like anything we’d want to do and have ourselves. And this is where we are led astray, and are leading ourselves astray.

Caught up in the story of lack, and wrapped up in the notion that more is better, we instinctively reject any calls for anything approaching limits, sounding like less.

In fact, we have come to a point where we even try to see human nature as defined by limitless desire, involved in nothing much more than every individual’s struggle to survive and amass more scarce stuff. People who propose such a bleak view the most vehemently even pride themselves on their great understanding, rational and devoid of any romanticism.

Arguments that seem to disagree immediately, as loss aversion takes over, get taken as threats – “you see things differently, you will lose what you have“; “you tell me to live with less, you just want to cheat me out of more” – and we fail to see the world as it really is, and ourselves as we really are.

The reality of ourselves, however, is that we are competitive as well as cooperative. Even more importantly, we are happier not the more we have, beyond limits, but when we have – and know what is – enough. We are the happier the more we do; happier with experiences, learning and growing in our knowledge and skill, contributing to our social circles, feeling powerful by being of some control over our lives.

The reality of the world, similarly, is both that there are limits, that the world works – and is – a closed system, and also that an abundance of enough can be produced.

The industrial model takes what is there to be found, uses it, and then disposes of it, calling the entire process value-adding progress, even when it takes away what used to be a commons necessary for everyone’s life and turns it into profit for a few, and even when the losses actually are higher than the gains.

The human work with(in) nature has, where it worked well, for the longest time (where it hasn’t simply been too small in comparison to its environmental context to be of any serious influence) been based not on the industrial model, but the ecological: cultivation of the land, agri-culture, a dominance of local resources and, because of that lack of extreme availability, a focus on frugality.

Thus, the difference is not only one of input as resources and outflow of waste, accompanied by destructive affluence, on the one side, or, on the other side, poor frugality with (perhaps) sustainability, but also one with a co-creative approach with nature: seeking to have enough, and better lives, by growing/cultivating more of what contributes positively to enough and better, increasing fertility and abundance while keeping a balance in making a living, not living to make a killing.

This point is often misunderstood or simply not seen even by proponents of “green” approaches: The usual talk is of stopping the “unsustainable” use of resources and switching to only using up what is there at the levels at which it gets replenished (when talking about renewable resources, of course). Actually, though, renewable resources do not only get renewed, their stock could even be extended and additional resources opened up by the use of ecological approaches such as agroecology, restoration and reconciliation ecology, following ecological principles such as the productivity and resilience of biodiverse systems.

This, then, would also be what makes for a civilized person and a civilization at large: not to give in to the basest of impulses and negative stories, and thus produce the bleak outcomes they visualize, but to learn and work towards better – better lives, and our better selves.

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