Cornucopia
Abundance isn’t shipping containers full of stuff. (image by me, CC BY NC SA)

Last month I was at the Scifi Economics Lab, and Cory Doctorow
was one of the speakers. There was much to unpack in his talk, and he has a style of delivery that makes you want to quote a lot of things. I won’t give in to that urge, but will highlight one expression.

At some point he talked about abundance. It’s a term I’ve struggled with over the years because it’s so easy to interpret as having mountains of stuff, as per the image above. Or have everything free. A Dutch expression or rather admonition “we don’t live in the land where chickens fly into your mouth already fried” is probably an image our Calvinist culture associates with abundance: no work, but all the fruits of it. I have a sense of the meaning of abundance other than that, but never felt I had the right words to express that other perspective on abundance.

Doctorow’s metaphor for abundance was useful for me. He described back packers always having to carry a roll of toilet paper with them and that if not used it would desintegrate in your backpak, and therefore regularly needs replacement. Backpackers spent resources on replacing their toilet paper and spent mental energy on keeping an eye on still having it with them. A constant worry, and an inefficient use of resources (as you don’t use much of the toilet paper for its intended purpose, due to degradation).
Abundance then is being certain there is toilet paper when and where you need it. This is a qualitative metaphor that adds location, timing and actual need as dimensions of relevance. Abundance here is also more efficient, reduces worry, and is always there when needed. But it’s not limitless, free, or available anywhere for anything at any whim. It’s about qualitative abundance not quantitative abundance (‘heaps of free stuff’).

Hotel Room Toilet Paper Roll FoldMetaphorical Practical abundance, image by Tony Webster, license CC BY

This makes a vast number of things abundant in the society I live in, because it is there when I need it, without worry. Water, food, energy, clothing, transport, and everything else including toilet paper. (I once had a Central-Asian colleague who told me she thought, having visited, the Netherlands was totally boring because of that predictable abundance: no need to improvise anytime/anywhere.) Especially in the context of the six ways to die, abundance is an important notion, also because that abundance is often acquired by increasing the complexity of our systems. That complexity can break down.

Time, location and the context of an existing need are qualitative dimensions interesting to consider as design factors. What do you do when one or more of them are not to be counted on? Or can be counted upon, but at specific intervals? This is dealing with and designing for intermittence, as building block of both resilience and agency. That’s for another time.