From overabundance to engagement in scarcity

This morning, 8.30hrs, wandering through a pallette of coloured leaves, swishing sounds as the feet wipe dried leaves aside. The playground still empty. That’s autumn 2020: a still life portrait, hanging in there like the swing. Unknowing about until when, who is hit how hard, and what collectively binds us beyond the fear of a virus.

In the late afternoon, 17hrs, city center Cologne. Luminescent shops, streets glow, people running the gauntlet. “Pass doch auf, Blindfisch!”, some agitated snubbing comes from my left, a masqued face, eyes angry, mouth probably spumous. Good, some cloth is wiping. I swish aside, the hand of my son, squeezing for a little reassurance. The boulevard is not big enough anymore for parallelly strolling by. It is not black friday but the rush and the seemingly final occasion before getting back and staying at home provides cues of some desperation about how to unleash an “experience”, a little adventure, just something. As an arbitrary substitute for activties that are now frowned upon. Shopping: a little patch on the souring, agitated, craving soul that has been too long stimulated with overabundance. The mental and psychological hang-over during the second wave in the light of upcoming long winter months seeks eruptions in the few remaining societal places.

Some years ago, Erix Drexler had published a book called “Radical abundance” (2013). His claim was that through atomically precise manufacturing (APM) it would be possible to produce radically more of “what people want at a lower cost” (xi): “no manual work to be done. There is no need for a person to stick his hands into the guts of the production system. (…) If plants and animals were more cooperative (and less vulnerable to diseases, weeds, pests, and predation) they’d join digital systems and APM as minimal-labor-production systems.”(p.52) ”. Desirable?

Amusing, a bit sadly so, too. Humans, too, are vulnerable to diseases and pests and so forth. A visionary of the past whose imagination has run wild way beyond the vulnerabilities of his own kind. These times have shown that (over)abundance and omnipresent “shoppability” of goods has been only the fantasy of engineers and marketing people. Abundance and shoppability of goods do not equal availabilty for everyone (hence justice), it makes it painstakingly obvious that no matter how technologically or econmoically advanced we are, the only thing that has become abundant is that which is scarce for others: shelter. Home office helps to make it possible, empty office buildings, empty hotel rooms, empty shops, all there and yet increasing homeless people and people who become homeless because of ongoing income shortages accelerated throughout the lock down phases.

In times in which it is not a given anymore that a person can “stick his hands into the guts” , it can create wonder what it means to engage with work, activties to be done in order to achieve something. What characterizes consumption and satisfaction? According to Drexler it is characterized by availability and can be maximised by radical abundance. Yet, the very way availability is being achieved is a crucial meaning-donator that is taken out of the equation. People nowadays seem to do some soulsearching, realising that the way things have been growing into, the system that we have conjured up, is not working anymore and the predetermined economical breaking points are now being pushed and do break.

There seems to dawn a renewed appreciation of the way things are being crafted, engagement with doing and making. Many of us who are now sitting at home engage in various “knutsel” handicraft activitities, writing, learning instruments, cooking or dancing and sporting at home. Engagement is the new key to harvest happiness, the satisfaction of online shopping doesn’t do the trick anymore. Followingly, if consumption is characterized by availability, hence scarcity is so, too. (Over)abundance does not necessarily lead to greater satisfaction or happiness: we always strive for what we do not get easily. Our sense of achievement is closely linked to satisfaction. When there is nothing to achieve, what should we strive for? What are the new visions that can accompany and guide us through such uncertain times? Regardfulness and the appreciation of engagement teaches us to embrace the scarcity that provides meaning to our achievements. Yet, regardfulness and appreciation of engagement are only two of the ingredients that help to re-orient. Courage to ask bold questions children like to ask with a suspension of judgement, with a curiosity to inquire, an openness to re-examine regarding its practicability. Does it still fit? Courage to the politicization of societal change and what society can be becoming need to be voiced and discussed. Basic questions need to be opened up again for collective reflections: what kind of society do we want to be? What are stimulating visions that provide and produce social glue? Where are our moral boundaries and what reasons can be given in light of the changing economical, political and educational landscape? Can we explain that also to small and large persons alike? Give the abundant of the few to the scarcity of the growing part? “Keep your coins, I want change.”, said the punk to the caring grandmother, sitting on the boulevard.

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