23 March 2008

Why Abundance is So Scarce

“If survival of the fittest were truly the basic theme of evolution, then today we should all be microbes.”
- Ludwig von Bertalanffy

There seem to be three big obstacles to abundance: “only” thinking, inability to see the larger whole, and inability to design one’s way out of current scarcity.

Zero sum games are games like the NCAA tournament – one team’s victory comes at the expense of another team’s playoff hopes: for me to win, you must lose. By contrast, in nonzero sum games (more often called variable sum games), the outcome is not fixed. For instance, in a relationship, it is quite possible for a couple to play games that make them both worse, or both better.

This applies to communities as well. Imagine three farmers living in low-lying water. They build paths connecting the three houses. The paths linked together actually block out the water. They now have an enclosed area, a triangle of land, that is shared between them. In such a reality, the sense of ownership is different. Each farmer depends on the other to continue to maintain the path so that all have farm land. [Thanks to my buddy Rick for this example of a sensibility he wishes he could have brought back from his time in Germany to the US.]

In his brilliant book Nonzero, Robert Wright points to nonzero games as the mechanism for progress. If one Northwestern tribe has an abundance of salmon and another has an abundance of furs, cooperation by trade makes both tribes better off, allowing them to be warm and well fed. Trade may well be the simplest example of a nonzero sum game.

As economies become more advanced, they become more characterized as nonzero sum games. People working in an economy more dependent on land, for instance, are more inclined to think zero sum. Such societies are more violent and more given to absolutes. By contrast, people working in an economy more dependent on information and knowledge are more inclined to think nonzero sum. These societies are prone to negotiation and willingness to see things from multiple perspectives.

Inability to see beyond zero sum rules is probably the biggest obstacle to peace and progress. Such a world view is probably best characterized by the phrase, “There is only so much.” As soon as people believe that, the only reasonable thing to do is get yours – at any cost. What is more rarely seen is the possibility of dropping the “only” in this phrase, transforming it from “There is only so much,” to “There is so much.” The first defines a scarcity mentality. The second, an abundance mentality.

There are two things that could destroy a community. A scarcity mentality that leads to in-fighting (this can happen even within companies). An abundance mentality in a community that has not designed its way out a dependence on scarce resources.

“Only” thinking, as in, there is only one way to do things or only one truth that defines things or only one perspective that matters, breeds scarcity. As long as people and communities cling to “only” thinking they will have an abundance of evidence of scarcity.

There does seem to be an impulse towards the progress that depends on greater cooperation – the movement from tribes to city-state and city-states to nation-states for instance. And all this progress seems dependent on seeing a greater whole than exists now, seeing beyond the limits of current boundaries. Abundance, then, seems to rely on a few things: getting beyond “only” thinking, seeing larger wholes, and, as seen with the farmers able to create land out of a swamp or tribes negotiating trade deals, a design competence.

No comments: