The Term “Post Scarcity” Could Maybe Use Some Clarifying

I have always found the term post scarcity problematic. The common definition of scarcity defines it as, loosely speaking: insufficient supply to meet demand. If we take this definition at face value then we have achieved post scarcity the moment nobody demands anything. Therefore, we could achieve post scarcity simply by taking happy pills and making ourselves artificially satisfied. Alternately, we might never achieve post scarcity if some cosmic beings somewhere in the universe still want the same rivalrous good, such as to be “undisputed king of the Milky Way”.

Thus when people talk of post scarcity what they often mean is something more like post material scarcity. This isn’t necessarily a great term—it’s added length means it doesn’t roll off the tongue with the same ease—but it is clearer in intent. In the short term, what we should strive for is not necessarily the end of all scarcity, but rather the creation of a world where all of people’s basic material needs are met.

This of course raises the question of what constitutes “basic material needs”. I would propose that the bottom two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy—physiological and safety needs—might be a sufficient starting point, with the added qualification that ideally no one ought to be coerced into work they don’t want to be doing. This landmark alone would constitute a pretty big change to the human condition.

2 thoughts on “The Term “Post Scarcity” Could Maybe Use Some Clarifying

  1. That’s a good point. “Post scarcity” has always been a vague term, and you can never really get past certain kinds of scarcity.

    A definition might have to go a little farther then that, though. One reason that we haven’t gotten to a “post scarcity” society so far is that it seems there’s a natural tendency that as our quality of living rises, we require more and more resources (time, money, energy, ect) to maintain our current standard of living. A big house takes a lot more time and money to maintain it then a small house; a participatory democracy is a much nicer place to live then the monarchy, but it takes a much bigger commitment of time, education, and resources to maintain it.

    A post scarcity society, I would think, would also have to include the ability to maintain a “normal” standard of living by the standards of the day, whatever those are, without a constant struggle to not fall behind. Because once you get used to a certain standard of living, having your standard of living drop is extremely painful and “feels” like poverty, even if your standard of living is still enough to survive on.

    I think it’s possible to do; I think that the amount of time and energy to maintain a certain standard of living will blow past any increase in demand, and I think that we’re getting to the point where material goods will improve in ways that don’t significantly increase the maintenance cost (a modern computer doesn’t use more energy then a 1998 computer, even though it’s far better.)

    • This is a good point, but yes I don’t think our demand for basic goods is growing as fast as our supply, so we *should* be able to close the gap eventually.