From owning scarcity to sharing abundance — how ‘abundanomics’ could transform our future

Author Simon Spooner / Infrastructure Futures

The journey from ‘economics’ to ‘abundanomics’ won’t be easy. But the rewards could be huge. And as our existing consumer capitalism model becomes increasingly untenable, the need for change grows stronger.

How do you see the future of mankind: a comfortable life of plenty, or a dystopian wilderness of want? The most common expectation is probably the negative one — fighting for dwindling resources, coping with disruption of climate change, rising sea levels and mass migration.

Yet this does not have to be our fate. We can change our basic economic model and adapt to living more harmoniously with the world around us. But how?

Rather than a choice between destructive consumer societies or an ascetic ‘green’ lifestyle without our material comforts, our future could be one where we increase our standards of living and become sustainable. It’s based on a new way of formulating the problems of production and consumption: abundanomics.

It’s not about having less or consuming less. It’s about having and consuming in a different way. And if we do it correctly we can all reap the rewards. Circularity and abundance aren’t idle fantasy, but a viable path towards a more sustainable way of life.

It’s the economy, stupid

Economics has governed human life for centuries. At its most fundamental, economics is about the distribution of limited resources among consumers. Different theories argued for the most efficient, or the most just, or the most effective distribution of those resources.

But regardless of the theory, economics depends upon the notion that resources are valuable but finite. Once consumed, they become waste with no, or negative, value. This linear process demands the constant sourcing of new raw materials and labour to produce the next set of consumable goods. Mine it or grow it, then make it, before using it and dumping it. Supply and demand curves dominate, and pointless activity is rewarded as economic growth (measured as GDP), while depleted resources, degraded environment and devastated ecology are dismissed as ‘externalities’.

Each cycle of economic activity creates problems that must then be sorted out, cancelling out the gains in wealth. Unfairly, those that pay the price of environmental degradation are not the ones who gained the wealth. But if we can eliminate the negative impact of the use of energy and produce longer lasting goods, then at the end of each cycle there is a greater abundance of wealth to share than at the start.

A bundle of energy

Energy is the most important resource in any economic system. We need it in some form to get just about anything done. So energy is the engine of economic growth, and getting more of it needs both physical infrastructure and the intangible infrastructure of social organisation.
The old economic model relied upon fossil fuels (or before that wood). Not only do fossil fuels conform to the traditional model of economics, they actively reinforce it. If the energy powering the system is itself finite and produces vast waste products, these characteristics will shape the entire conception of economics.
The threat now is not ‘peak oil’ but the limit on the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gasses. Fortunately, just as this has become apparent access to non-polluting, renewable energy sources has become a realistic and viable alternative. Theoretically, once we have organised the necessary infrastructure, renewable energy resources are almost infinite. Then, given sufficient energy, we can transform the resource consuming economy into a circular process that removes many of the constraints on production, material recovery and re-use.

Even in extreme climates, these principles can help to create sustainable lifestyles. In the Middle East, for example, clean power can come from solar and wind, which can be used to desalinate seawater to provide the vital resource for life. Further energy storage with liquid air, which involves using excess power to compress and cool air to release heat, then re-gassifying to recover the energy can create intense cold. If combined with district cooling systems and the heating of waste biosolids to release re-useable resources, even Saudi Arabia’s electrical and thermal needs could be met with almost no net resource consumption or greenhouse gas emissions.

These developments can help us to replace the old, linear model of economics, with its waste products and insatiable appetite for new resources, with a sustainable circular model. Rather than managing scarcity, the new model is about the distribution and maintenance of abundance.

Future cities

According to the UN, by 2050 it’s estimated that over two-thirds of human beings will live in cities. Reaching a post-scarcity era will depend on how effectively we can revolutionise the way our cities work. This will be enabled by the application of new technology in the infrastructure but will be driven by new social organisation.

We often take the form of cities for granted. But their layouts are no accident. They are not fixed; they have evolved through history. They’re determined by the transportation technologies, building materials, sanitation technology, social power structures, and military imperatives at the time of their foundation and flourishing.

Most of our urban areas reflect our old assumption of the need for centralisation. Government and services for shoppers, students, and patients are usually in the centre, with residential areas and secondary industry in the periphery, then a huge, distant hinterland for food production. All of these city-shaping presumptions are eroded by new technology.

Now, with detailed information and communication always available to us in the palm of our hands, the rules for how we interact with our urban infrastructure are changing. It is now much easier to negotiate sharing infrastructure instead of having to own it exclusively.

Take work, for example. For much of the 20th century, employment meant working in a centralised office block or factory, with a specific station assigned to you, to which you would travel every weekday morning in order to work your regular hours. It was standardised, rigid, and for white collar jobs near-universal. These patterns of working shaped the infrastructure and rhythm of urban life, creating ‘rush hour’ commuting, office culture, and dominant office blocks.

Is work working?

The old ways of working are now being undermined. The growing power of the internet, computers and data mean that many people can perform parts of their jobs just as effectively from home, or from a coffee shop. The commute, vast office blocks which lie dormant at weekends, rush hour congestion — all of these ‘facts’ of city life can be refashioned to create a more sustainable lifestyle.

Future cities can help to usher in a new mindset and lifestyle for their citizens. Multi-purpose, modular and flexible allocation of space enables greater efficiency and reduces demand for more buildings. Retail areas could be moved around on demand. Spaces can host both work and leisure activities. Companies and people can share resources depending on their need, encouraging co-working and easing pressure on the environment.

Food is another example of this transformation. Traditionally farmland around the city was its breadbasket. Now food is sourced from all around the globe through trade networks. But in the future, with indoor urban agriculture systems, food from all climates could be grown right within the city area and supplied direct to consumers.

An abundant future

There are good reasons to be hopeful for a future beyond scarcity or calamity. Around the world, we’ve witnessed dramatic changes in lifestyles and prospects in the last few decades, and most of it has unfolded peacefully. Nonetheless, if abundance isn’t distributed and areas are left to face climate change armed only with scarcity economics, the resulting inequality will unleash forces imperilling the entire system.

And there is another danger, stemming not from missing the opportunity for abundance but on implementing it a way that generates alienation. Many Western countries have already, at least temporally, eliminated scarcity for the majority of their populations. Yet satisfaction and happiness appear to have declined. Mental health is in crisis, depression is growing, and the search for a meaningful life feels more urgent than ever. Alienation has led some in society to reject the very social infrastructure and political systems that have brought them abundance.

In our quest for abundance, we have to learn one of the most important lessons of the 20th century. Fulfilling our material needs alone won’t make us happy, and if it comes at the expense of the intangible things that make life worth living, such as community and a sense of identity, it may even make us miserable. To find a way to the land of plenty, we must take the human with us, and create a future that’s abundant in joy as well as comfort.

— Simon Spooner (Technical Director & Principal Consultant, Water & Environment sector)

Find out more about how Atkins is implementing groundbreaking solutions to some of the world’s most pressing infrastructure challenges

Original article source Mar 20, 2019

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