The New Statesman in December 2016 had Yo Yushi visit a Star Trek convention in Birmingham where he recalls amongst other things," In a 1988 episode of The Next Generation, the captain of the USS Enterprise, Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), lectures a 20th-century executive who has been defrosted from cryogenic preservation about the Federation’s economic beliefs.
“A lot has changed
in the past 300 years,” he says. “People are no longer obsessed with
the accumulation of things. We have eliminated hunger, want, the need
The businessman protests that without money his
life would have no purpose. Picard responds that “the challenge” of life
is merely to “improve yourself”, and to “enjoy it”. If that sounds
striking today, it was doubtless more so when the episode first aired in
the United States, just a year after Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good”
speech in Wall Street gave the free-market Washington consensus its most abiding slogan.
Actually, ’post-scarcity economics’ is a contradiction in terms as
academic economics defines itself as the study of how societies and
individuals allocate scarce resources. The opening chapter of a typical
American textbook (Economics by Byrns and Stone) is headed ‘Economics:
The Study of Scarcity and Choice’. Paul Samuelson, in his much more
widely-used textbook of the same title, invents ‘The Law of Scarcity’:
‘If an infinite amount of every good could be produced, or if human
wants were fully satisfied, it would not then matter if too much of a
particular good were produced. Nor would it then matter if labor and
materials were combined unwisely… There would then be no economic goods,
i.e., no goods that are relatively scarce; and there would hardly be
any need for a study of economics or ‘economizing’. All goods would be
free goods, like air.’
This is not a ‘law’ but a definition and an odd one at that. In its
normal sense ‘scarcity’ means there’s not enough of something, that it’s
in short supply. But economics defines it as a situation where
Samuelson’s ‘infinite amount of every good’ cannot be produced, i.e. as
the absence of sheer abundance.
For Byrns and Stone ‘a world in which all human wants are instantly
fulfilled is hard to imagine.’ But this is just what Star Trek does
imagine and what its creator, Gene Roddenberry, insisted should be a
background assumption. It is thus a direct challenge to economics and
Accusing Roddenberry of espousing ‘utopian socialism’, a certain
Gardner Goldsmith asserted that a ‘no-money society’ was a fantasy:
‘Like Roddenberry, many thinkers have tried to envision a world in
which there is no need for money, no market exchange, and no property.
And every one of those thinkers, whether be they followers of John
Lennon, Michael Moore, or Karl Marx, has overlooked one key insight:
man’s nature does not change.’
As if we hadn’t heard that one before! Paul Krugman made a more
intelligent point that, while replicators might be able to produce
material things in demand, they wouldn’t be able to provide services.
Star Trek is of course fiction. But Roddenberry’s assumption raises the
question of what humans would do (besides exploring space) if they
didn’t have to work to satisfy their needs. Provide services for each
Even in 2-300 years time humans will still have to put in some work to
satisfy their needs, if only to maintain the replicators. But this
doesn’t undermine the case for a society based on common ownership of
the means of production where exchange and money would therefore be
redundant and where people work at what they do best and take according
to their needs.
Scarcity has already been conquered, not in the economists’ eccentric
sense of the absence of sheer abundance, but in the sense that the
resources, technology and human skills already exist to produce enough
satisfy likely human needs and wants. No need to wait for the invention
of replicators to establish this down here on Earth in the 21st century.
Adapted from a Cooking the Books article in The Socialist Standard
Wednesday, January 25, 2017
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
We live a world based upon scarcity. Scarcity is neither natural nor necessary. Imagine if computers grew on trees, and the world was a gigantic forest, then in a monetary sense computers would be worthless. It would be impossible to sell computers if an over-abundance of computers existed because people could easily acquire computers for free. In the world of post-scarcity everything will be free. Nearly all of the major scarcity that exists today is not due to an actual lacking of material or energy. Our world has the capacity for everyone to have a very nice life materially. The reality is that global material abundance can be produced with current technologies. Food is one example, where there is more than enough produced for everyone on the planet , but politics and economics prevent fair distribution. The bottom line is that in the fundamental resources of this planet there exists in various orders of magnitude more energy, raw material and biological resources than humanity requires, and it is a matter of developing systems that use and distribute them more efficiently. Imagine a world where you can grow all your own food in a fully automated greenhouse. Your water falls freely from the sky or wells up from the earth and is filtered and cleaned automatically. Any time you want a new device or product, you can find a design online, perhaps customise it, and fabricate it locally or have it delivered using an automated delivery service. And your children have access to the best education ever conceived, for free and you have access to abundant free energy. What need will you have then to engage with the monetary economy?
Post-scarcity almost by definition implies "post-economic" as economics is based on scarcity. A post-scarcity society means that the necessities of living (and plenty more) will be available for everyone who requires it. There may well still be occasional shortages of certain items that have purposefully not been made publicly available or are simply too scarce, but for the majority of people this will be irrelevant. The important point is that for the first time the general population will be able to live comfortably without having to sell their labour-power and owe anyone else their time. People will not have to suffer drudgery and what amounts to wage slavery during the best years of their lives. Wage-slavery is not liberty.We are owned, cradle to grave. Working from pay-check to pay-check, often toiling at more than one job, in order to provide just the essentials of life is exactly the life that our great grandparents lived. That’s not the future our that our they had in mind for us. We should be celebrating that there is no longer any need to pay greedy corporations because technology means we can get what we want for free. Our mainstream economic dogma emphasizes competition and an income-through-jobs link which creates a vast amount of social stress in a society. People often throw their lives away because they are depressed and unhappy by financial misery. Money and governments only exist to regulate scarcity therefore if you are depressed regarding your lack of money, or the unfairness of your government, you must understand there is a reason to hope; that there is a reason why you shouldn’t give up hope.
Industrial capitalism has succeeded beyond it's wildest dreams. So much so, that over half a century ago, we had to start scrambling to find ways to soak up the embarrassing abundance of productive human capacity in the system. The world has long reached a pinnacle of productive efficiency impossible to visualise just a century ago. We’ve had the technology to provide material comfort to everyone on the planet for decades now. Denial of this fact will only doom us to decades of continued deprivation. We need not quibble over "whether or not" the post-scarcity scenario "can" or "should" come to pass because it exists in the here and now. Of course, we need to make some crucial adaptations to the bygone system which brought us this far, by which we mean a change from capitalism to communism. People need to engage in a political struggle to bring about the changes. The transition beyond our current institutions to a post-scarcity society may be harder than actually developing the technologies required to support a post-scarcity world. Social change doesn't come by decree from the politicians. It comes from the bottom up, from those who see clearly and say, "I can see a better way to do things, a better way to live". This isn't to say what is proposed here will happen, but that it could happen – it is feasible from a physical and technological viewpoint. It is a matter of spreading the knowledge that these things are possible and enough people choosing to work towards it. We have the devices that allow people to effectively communicate. They're called lap-top computers and smart phones.
We have the new forms of energy that is free for all to use with no negative environmental impact. They are called solar, wind, and geothermal. Solar power and other forms of energy-reclamation will create free supplies of unlimited energy for everyone. By employing open collaborative design, digital manufacturing and advanced automation in combination, everything we need should be trivial to fabricate and distribute — from the basics like clean water, good quality food, medicine and suitable housing, to increasingly essential material goods such as vehicles, computers and mobile phones – all the way up to purely luxury items. Decentralizing production of these things will also allow more equal access to them and side-step many of the issues involved in distributing them. These methods could overcome nearly all significant scarcity that may persist due to the economic framework we have inherited from capitalism. We will create food and other products almost out of thin air. Technology will become extremely sophisticated. We will effortlessly grow food and manufacture products (via 3D printing) within our own homes. Everything will be decentralized and everyone will be empowered. We can build technology of any complexity from free open-source designs and digitally fabricate them from raw materials which are themselves extremely abundant. With every year that goes by, the methods of fabrication become more decentralized and the open-source designs become better, making this a more attractive and feasible option. In the future nothing will need to be fixed because molecular nano-technology will ensure everything is self-repairing. In this post-scarcity future, where everything is free, there will be no reason to feel unhappy; despair will be vanquished. We will enjoy this utopia for longer because medical technology will slow down aging and most illnesses will be curable. Earthquakes, hurricanes, drought, landslides, tsunamis, famine, disease — these things are a part of life on Earth. But with the intelligent application of technology, some can be eliminated, some can be rendered harmless and others can be dealt with as best we can. Better building methods, particularly in earthquake-prone areas, can reduce the numbers who die in earthquakes to nearly zero. The same is true for hurricanes. If food production, water treatment and power generation are all decentralized, people are no longer dependent on roads and infrastructure to keep them alive in a disaster area.
Public libraries have been lending out books to people, for free, for hundred of years or so. Now we have indestructible book called an e-book that could be read 10 billion times without ever falling apart. The readers have the ability to "manufacture" copies of their own, on their computer. It's a post-scarcity book. It works the same way with all digital goods -- from entertainment to communication to the software you use to do your job. All monetary systems are abolished. Instead, if someone wishes something they only have to ask for it and public automated industry provides it. In theory, there will be no limit to how many resources an individual can consume. In the real world and in practice human wants are not infinite.The majority of post-scarcity economies develop towards steady state economies compared to the continuous growth economies common in scarcity economies. This is due to the fact that if post-scarcity economies grow at their full speed eventually local resources may become depleted thus increasing the strictness of supramonetary approaches and leading back towards a scarcity economy. It should be noted however that the resources available to a post-scarcity economy are huge (potentially multiple solar systems worth of matter and energy) so population growth is not the biggest issue. Rather steady state economic principles are often put in place to preserve Nature. People have already embraced a growing environmental consciousness of “Reduce, Re-use, Recycle” to protect the biosphere. No matter how efficient or advanced a post-scarcity economy is there will always be a time limit to how fast commodities and services can be provided often referred to as the "wait-time". For many items wait-time is an insignificant factor to the consumer (most everyday items can be provided for in minutes). However if the wait-time is deemed to be an issue then logistical management including mechanisms for quickening supply can be designed. For example; if a household automated-fabricator is asked to provide a complex or large item it may be quicker and more efficient for a neighbourhood industrial-sized automatate-fabricator to manufacture the item and transport it to the consumer. Communities can devise their own particular priority allocating systems to determine access to fast track wait-time lists.
The biggest challenge is that despite technologies of abundance is that we still think in terms of scarcity. Recently, Canon announced that over the next few years some of its camera factories will phase out human workers in an effort to reduce costs. That means robots will soon be making the next generation of cameras, possibly as soon as 2015. Civilisation is ever closer to a near-workerless world. Under capitalism people feel that this increasing automation is a threat. A threat to their livelihoods. The reality is that automation is likely to provide situations where people will be left free to be creative and in activities that they want to be part of. Open design will enable people to be involved in the development and customisation of the goods they want in a way not seen before and reverses the trend of people simply being passive consumers. Creativity is something that can give huge satisfaction to people but if not fulfilled can cause great frustration and dissatisfaction. It enables an individual to have more control over their environment and life. Human beings are inherently industrious; not indolent, slothful, and lethargic. We are not lazy and useless, by nature. We are imaginative, daring, productive, adventurous, curious, persistent, and artistic creatures. Unfortunately a large proportion of people today in both white and blue collar jobs would really rather be doing something else than the jobs they are employed to do. Many feel that what they are doing is not directly relevant to their lives or is not particularly interesting and feel they are simply a cog with little control in a larger machine. Currently they have to do it to afford food, shelter and goods. A post-scarcity society enables them to have the time and space to work on things that are important to them, and to learn the skills needed to reach their goals and have room to be more creative. In a post-scarcity culture, not having to spend the best part of the day working for a living also frees people up to spend more time with each other - something that is vital for a proper community and it will permit for a greater variety of working life than offered today.
Using current existing known technology:
We can provide abundant clean water for everyone on Earth.
We can produce enough food to feed everybody in the world without harming the environment
We can meet our energy needs ten-fold using clean, renewable energy
We can build high-quality houses in a day or two, providing shelter for those presently living in slums
We can provide safer, more efficient, less polluting transport
We can provide mobile Internet access to everyone on Earth, connecting them to the world's informational and educational resources. Through open collaboration, this can network vast amounts of human intelligence, which can greatly accelerate scientific and technological progress. We can freely disseminate instructional materials throughout the internet, providing education of unprecedented quality to everyone on Earth. We can organize the World's medical knowledge, so that people have access to the highest-quality medical information and advice at all times.
There is widespread concern about an "overpopulation problem" which some claim makes abundance impossible. The world's population is about 7 billion. This number is growing with the UN predicting a possible 10.6 billion for 2050. After that, the UN expects the population to begin to fall. Assume that the population continues to rise beyond 2050 and reaches 40 billion, well beyond any UN estimate, would we be overpopulated then, in relation to available resources?
Without expanding farmland, we could grow enough food for 80 billion people using low-tech permaculture techniques only.
Our planet has about 1260 quintillion liters of water. This means that 40 billion people using 200 liters a day each would use, over the course of a year, less than 0.00025% of the world's water.
The world used 15 terawatts of energy in 2008. If rising population and increasing technology increased this 100-fold to 1500 terawatts, we would still only need to convert less than 0.9% of the sunlight that falls on Earth. It is highly likely that we will have nuclear fusion reactors and space-based solar panels before our energy needs come anywhere near this level.
The planet's surface (including oceans) is about 510 million square kilometers. According to Wikipedia, one-eighth of this, 63,750,000 sq. kms, is habitable land. For a population of 40 billion people, this is 1593.75 sq.m habitable land per person, equivalent to a average population density of 628 people per sq.km. This is comparable to a fairly densely populated country like Taiwan.
We can do more with less. 100 years ago, 8000 square meters of land was needed to grow food for a person. It can now be done on a few hundred square meters. Why? Because human intelligence has figured out how to extract more resources from a fixed amount of material. The effect of human intelligence is always to enable us to do more with less. Better solar cells can make more electricity from less sunlight, we can make a more powerful computer chip using less material than a few years ago, and more efficient vehicles can travel the same journeys with much less petrol. Human ingenuity is the key that unlocks all other resources. The greater the population, the greater the store of human intelligence. A large population that is well networked and educated will concoct and communicate all kinds of technological solutions that enable us to do more with the resources we have. And so, paradoxically, an increased population can mean that we have more resources to go around.
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