The Illusion of Abundance

When I order a piece of cake at a restaurant, I always wonder how much more cake there is back in the kitchen. Not because I’m greedy, but because it always fascinates me, from a logistics point of view, how they manage to plan consumption vs supply so that the restaurant achieves that magical goldilocks balance between oversupply and failing to meet demand. It must be a headache, especially having to factor in low consumption and high consumption days, and the varying demographic profile of the clientele which, I would think, affects which cake flavor they will choose.

As consumers of course, we never stop to think about these complexities: how the restaurant manages to have enough of our favorite cake available at any point, how the back kitchen manages to actually match what is on the menu. When we order food we are ordering based on our desire, not based on what is in stock, in much the same way our civilization has been appropriating natural resources: based on demand, not based on what is available. We never factor in how quickly these resources will be replaced, if at all, whether they are aquifers, tuna, trees, or cake. The restaurant manager must double as a magician: they must do their best to create an illusion of abundance: they must convince us that everything on the menu, is in fact, available at any point in time.

The illusion of abundance has been fundamental to the expansion of capitalism. It has been essential in feeding the dogma “if the consumer wants it, we will bring it to them, whatever it takes”. The illusion of abundance was a result of the deification of demand: at no point should we fail to meet demand, even if this means having to open more sweatshops, slash and burn more forest. We must keep the magic trick going. The illusionist must keep the illusion going for as long as possible, even if the odds are not in his favor. How does he do it?

Through another magic trick: money. Money is abstract value that does not really represent anything and can be kept flexible. If supply is low, the price just goes up. If more people ask for cake, more cake will be made, and everyone wins: the consumer, the restaurant owner, the farmers supplying flour, butter, sugar and eggs. Money is able to respond to demand, regulating the production process so that everyone is a winner, with one exception. All of the above “winners” I’ve just mentioned belong to the same one species, despite all the other animal and plant species that participated in making the cake. They all got absolutely nothing out of it. Some even had to die for it. And there’s your magic trick, explained. Money is not real. Money is a credit note of equity borrowed from nature, its animals, plants or other resources that the magician needs to exploit, in order to create his impossible illusion of abundance, as well as turn a profit.

In order to keep the illusion of abundance going, our civilization had to rely on a number of other magic tricks which needed to happen in the back kitchen of our economy: colonialism, intensive agriculture, slavery, mining. We have been living on “cake credit” for hundreds if not thousands of years, producing what we need through a process that eventually breaks the oven itself and sets the house on fire.

But if this magic trick is to continue, the destruction we are causing back in the kitchen must at all times remain completely invisible to us. We should never find out about the undocumented immigrant somewhere in an industrial-size bakery whose job is to make cake batter all day, which is then shipped to the restaurant. We must never find out about the emissions foot print of industrial steel furnaces required to build all of our kitchen gadgets. We should never second-guess ourselves about why on earth we put fossil fuel in our car this morning to drive to the restaurant to eat cake, when we already had some cake at home, albeit not the flavor we were craving today.

But there is one last magic trick that the restaurateur-cum-illusionist must perfect: he needs to be able to coordinate a complex, often unpredictable logistical operation from the production line all the way to the table, so that the customer gets their cake, any day of the week they might walk into the restaurant. You would assume that the goldilocks balance of supply and demand would only have been achieved if there were Harvard-educated economists having board meetings with the restaurant’s chefs on a weekly basis, using advanced modelling and predictive analytics of cake consumption data and other variables, and adjusting supply accordingly on a daily basis. There would be environmental scientists advising on the impact of overconsumption, population increase and intensive farming on the natural environment. There would be a social scientist and immigration advisor helping Julio from Guatemala who works long hours in the cake kitchen, so that he is more valued and appreciated, and better rewarded for his back-breaking work.

Instead, there is a much easier magic trick which solves all of the above: the invention of waste.

We’ll just make more cake, at a cost to workers and nature, and dump whatever cake is left at the end of the day in the trash. The illusion has been saved. And most consumers do not know this, but the invention of the concept of waste is exactly why you almost always have your favorite cake in your favorite restaurant. The concept of waste is yet another magical illusion, as waste is not real. It is a man-made concept that simply does not exist. Every time uneaten cake is thrown in the dumpster, work hours in the cake factory have been spent. Plants and animals have been unnecessarily slaughtered. CO2 was unnecessarily emitted to fire up the oven. We may label the dumped cake as “waste”, but it came at an incredible cost to the planet.

All magic tricks have to end sooner or later, when the curtain comes down and spectators return to their normal, real lives. Our economic system has invented a number of magic tricks to keep the illusion going: abundance, money and waste being just three of them. The red velvet curtain is coming down, and the illusionist will be lucky if they merely manage to hold on to their underwear.

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2 thoughts on “The Illusion of Abundance

  1. We live in Derek’s culture of make believe. The planet is just big enough and we are just clever enough to pull this magic trick off once. Just for the few. First come first served. It is an anomaly. Not the long term norm. Especially not for 8 billion + of our kind. The planet is not infinite and we humans are not infinitely clever. As clever as it appears to be, it is strickly based on drawdown. Over exploitation to the maximum. The side effects have been growing exponentially. The writing on the wall ignored. There is no one minding the store. The bill is coming due fast. Overshoot is a bitch. Love Rick

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