by Dan Vermeer, Associate Professor of the Practice and Executive Director, EDGE
I have been thinking a lot about scarcity and abundance recently. Behind the news headlines about our various crises lurks a profound visceral sense of scarcity. People worry about inflation eroding their spending power, or broken supply chains that can’t deliver the goods they want. Our politics is driven by fear, whether it is due to the perceived threats from outsiders, unfair policies, or zero sum battles. In our organizations, efforts to create a more diverse workforce can leave some feeling threatened. Even environmentalists are often tempted to highlight potential losses associated with climate change to motivate people to action. We are bombarded with scarcity, and sense that it is harder than ever to get what we need or to protect what we have.
A rich body of research has demonstrated consistent effects when we experience scarcity. For example, we tend to become more narrowly focused and myopic. We rely more heavily on emotion and heuristics and less on rational evaluation. Our reasoning becomes more “tunneled” and short-term, neglecting longer-term costs and benefits. We “borrow from the future” (e.g. take a high-interest loan or procrastinate). We are less able to collaborate with others. As a society, we don’t do well in a world of perceived scarcity.
These tendencies may serve us in specific contexts, but are particularly problematic when we face a complicated landscape of inter-connected “wicked problems”. We become more narrowly focused just at the moment we need to see connections. We hoard resources (think about the toilet paper panic at the beginning of the COVID pandemic) just when we need to share things more equitably. We hunker down alone just when we should be forming coalitions to develop creative new approaches. The perception of scarcity impedes our ability to respond to the challenges of real scarcity.
We need to flip this script. To effectively tackle our current challenges, we paradoxically need to cultivate abundance. An abundance mindset challenges the assumptions of zero sum thinking. To enhance food security, we may enable more people to grow and purchase their food locally rather than depend on brittle global supply chains. To reduce emissions, we may increase public transportation or bike lanes, or remodel cities to reduce dependence on cars. To ease the war on talent, we can find ways to bring new people into the workforce or enable people to shift toward new careers in fast-growing industries. An abundance mindset doesn’t deny the presence of real scarcity, but it begins with a conviction that there can be enough for everyone. Abundance can be a powerful lens for appreciating the true nature of our inter-connected problems, and for seeing what’s possible in a world obsessed with limits.
 For example, see Mullainathan, S. and Shafir, E., 2013. Scarcity. Social Policy, 46(2), pp.231-249.