Optimized for Scarcity

Two quotes that I had come across recently dealt with our human ability to deal, or not deal, with the excess of anything. Do read through.

First is from Bruce Chatwin, On the origins of human restlessness:

What I learned there—together with what I now knew about the Songlines—seemed to confirm the conjecture I had toyed with for so long: that Natural Selection has designed us—from the structure of our brain-cells to the structure of our big toe—for a career of seasonal journeys on foot through a blistering land of thorn-scrub or desert.

If this were so; if the desert were "home"; if our instincts were forged in the desert; to survive the rigors of the desert—then it is easier to understand why greener pastures pall on us; why possessions exhaust us, and why Pascal’s imaginary man found his comfortable lodgings a prison.

The key points that resonated with me in the above quote are that “greener pastures pall on us” and “possessions exhaust us”.

Second quote is by Clay Shirky as quoted and discussed in Megan Garber’s post on Nieman Journalism Labs:

“Scarcity is easier to deal with than abundance, because when something becomes rare, we simply think it more valuable than it was before, a conceptually easy change…abundance is different: its advent means we can start treating previously valuable things as if they were cheap enough to waste, which is to say cheap enough to experiment with.”

The key points in this quote should be obvious in the very first sentence. The idea is that abundance leads us to devalue something, perhaps to experiment with it as best case, or just to waste in the worst case.

The bottom line for both quotes seems to be that we humans are optimized by design for scarcity. The abundance of anything makes us swim upstream against the natural tendency of our nature. Or perhaps it is a evolutionary vestige that we are yet to outgrow.

The idea that humans are optimized for scarcity appeals to some deep part of me, can’t completely articulate why but I shall let this simmer within for some more time. What do you think?

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