The Earth’s the Limit (1)

The vision of post-scarcity is a popular but controversial meme in the debates of peer production. Post-scarcity envisions a world where everything is free as in free beer, where no payment or accounting is requirement for anything you use. Post-scarcity ideas usually rely very strongly on advanced technology, postulating that almost everything can be automated—or at least, everything that’s not fun and pleasant to do. Post-scarcity theorists also believe that advanced technology can provide enough natural resources and enough energy in order to satisfy everyone’s needs and wishes, possibly through extracting resources from space or through speculative future technologies such as nuclear fusion power.

A weak form of post-scarcity thinking is present in one of the founding documents of the free software movement, Richard Stallman’s GNU Manifesto (“weak” because there are still necessary tasks that are neither fun nor automated away):

In the long run, making programs free is a step toward the post-scarcity world, where nobody will have to work very hard just to make a living. People will be free to devote themselves to activities that are fun, such as programming, after spending the necessary ten hours a week on required tasks such as legislation, family counseling, robot repair and asteroid prospecting.

More radical visions of “true” post-scarcity are expressed in the writings of Paul Fernhout and in the Oekonux project’s idea of a “GPL Society” where “[t]he produced goods would be accessible for free by everybody who needed them”, while “[p]eople would work autonomously and voluntarily”. A post-scarcity society (though apparently still mixed with a scarcity-based attention economy for privileges and luxury goods) is the background of Cory Doctorow’s first free novel, “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.”

Environmentally concerned people will usually be deeply suspicious of post-scarcity, because they are aware that nature is already recklessly exploited as of today and that we use up Earth’s resources faster than Earth can renew them. Regarding resource use, we’re living at the cost of future generations, and the idea can future generations can not only continue this practice, but actually vastly expand it in order to make “freely available” to everybody what today is luxury for a few, is evidently absurd for ecologically aware people.

These different viewpoints on post-scarcity are certainly a reason for the big differences in the worldview of eco activists and peer production activists, making communication difficult—in spite of the fact that both rely on the common concept of the commons. In order to bridge this gap, Michel Bauwens and Franz Nahrada published a joint statement where they claimed outright that “P2P […] is not about post-scarcity” and argued for a strategic convergence of the “Open Everything” (peer production) movement with the environmental and social justice movements.

While I share this wish for a strategic convergence of the three movements, I would be hesitant to try to discard post-scarcity thinking altogether. Instead, I’ll take a look at the limitations that any peer production—based society will face and then consider whether and in what form something related to the post-scarcity ideas could emerge nevertheless.

The Earth’s carrying capacity

The ecological footprint of humanity “represents the amount of biologically productive land and sea area needed to regenerate the resources a human population consumes and to absorb and render harmless the corresponding waste.” According to the newest available estimates (for 2006), humanity’s ecological footprint is 1.4 planets Earth—we use up Earth’s resources 1.4 times faster than Earth can renew them. In the long run, we won’t be able to maintain that lifestyle, unless we find another half Earth to support it—not very likely.

But of course, not everyone uses Earth’s resources to an equal amount—far from it. The average personal footprint is 2.6 global hectares (gha)—an average person uses 2.6 hectares (10.000 m2) of Earth’s biocapacity. But in the USA, the average personal footprint is 9.0 gha—more than three times the global average. In Germany, it is 4.0 gha—50% more than average. Conversely, the personal (per capita) footprint in Bangladesh and Nepal is only 0.5 gha, in India and the Philippines it is 0.8 gha (cf. List of countries by ecological footprint). Clearly, our lifestyle in the developed nations is only possible because people elsewhere consume much less. We’re living both at the cost of future generations (consuming Earth’s resources faster than they can be renewed) and at the cost of people elsewhere.

The available biocapacity per person is 1.8 gha—if everyone used only 1.8 gha (on average), we would need only one Earth, not one-and-a-half as of now. If we want a sustainable and globally fair lifestyle, we’ll have to bring our personal footprints down to that level—meaning a reduction by more than 2 for Germans, by 5 for US citizens.

But the calculated values are for 2006, when the world population was estimated to be 6.5 billion. About 2050, the world population should reach 9 billion (after which it may stabilize at that level, or it may increase further—estimates differ). That will bring the available biocapacity per person down to 1.3 gha, corresponding to the current personal footprint of people living in Iraq, Morocco, or Uganda.

Clearly, any “post-scarcity” future won’t look like a “luxury for all” version of current life in Germany or the USA! (But hopefully it won’t look like life in Iraq either…)

[Second part]

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