Abundance and scarcity, a couple in perpetual crisis


Under the reign of Cronus and Rhea, men lived like gods. It was the golden age. They were free from worries and sufferings, they did not age and, around them, the “fertile land produced of itself” (The Works and the Days, Hesiod). Then came the end of abundance. The myth of a lost age of peace, youth and wealth, recounted by classical authors and, after them, an entire popular culture, which endlessly reformulated it, captures a sense of irreparable loss. It announces a future of scarcity and, perhaps, the need for protection to overcome fear.

On August 24, the President of Jupiter announced, in the Council of Ministers, the "end of abundance". Energy crisis, cost of liquidity, scarcity of raw materials, water shortages... “What we are experiencing is of the order of a great shift or a great upheaval”, insisted Emmanuel Macron, calling for unity in this difficult context. But if declare the "end of abundance", it's knocking at the door of a mythical imagination, it's also a well-codified political operation. From Colbert to Emmanuel Macron, via William Gladstone, in 1865, or Jimmy Carter, in 1977, carefully staged announcements of impending shortages have a long history.

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But what is abundance? Proclaiming its end will find all the more resonance when the term is vague and when you can project whatever you want into it. Economic anthropology, from Marcel Mauss and Karl Polanyi to David Graeber, has never ceased to show it: abundance is a completely relative notion. It depends on “needs” which are themselves the product of changing social and cultural structures. In 1972, Marshall Sahlins (1930-2021), known for his work on the peoples of the Pacific, shows that abundance has perhaps never been so perfect as in the hunter-gatherer societies of Polynesia, Amazonia or dating from the Paleolithic (Stone Age, Age of Plenty, Gallimard, 1979). In these nomadic populations where there are few stocks, where the excess mortality of children and old people is accepted, and where the inequalities of wealth are constantly checked by the group, the needs are not the same as in the societies modern. We can then enjoy a lot of free time, hunting and gleaning only a few hours a day, while enjoying a high protein intake.

Work division

Already in the XVIIIe century, the philosophers of the Enlightenment had emphasized the cultural relativity of the notion of luxury. In famous pages, the Scotsman Adam Smith remarked, in 1776, that an opulent African king surrounded by servants did not live much better, from a material point of view, than any worker in Europe (The Wealth of Nations, volume 1). Despite his simple life, he enjoyed the skilled work of an incalculable number of shepherds, weavers, carders, dyers, masons or merchants. Through the mechanisms of the division of labor, the thresholds of scarcity and abundance became moving realities.

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