The text below was a short discussion piece produced for the research project SCIBE (Scarcity and Creativity in the Built Environment). This research project is just a few months old, having been awarded funding by EU HERA. Jeremy Till is the Principle Investigator, and University of Westminster the lead institution. I contributed to the original research funding bid earlier this year (for €1M), and am engaged for around a day a week for the next three years, working on the project. The project web site is www.scibe.eu, although there is not much there yet!
Scarcity: Reality and Ideology
Scarcity is both a reality, and an ideology (a complex term, which I use here in the classic marxian sense of ‘false consciousness’).
There is a system of production (capitalism.) Real ‘scarcities’ play real roles in that system.. ie there are real material and energy flows, which ultimately have a combination of natural and social foundations. At any one time there are limits to these flows – ie there are real scarcities.
In addition, the concept of scarcity plays an ideological role. That is to say, it naturalises (it makes obscure) the socialcomponent of the limits of these flows: Those elements of the limits (at any given time) to material flows which are social in nature- ie determining who gets what proportion of the available materials and energy is according to a range of social constructs such as money, location, nationality – are obscured, and made to look inevitable, natural, the democracy of the market etc
This is compounded when it is realised that those in the system who own and manage these flows have a vested interest in maintaining scarcities. Scarcities, the control of resources, are real social power. (In energy supply for example, big power companies are most obstructive to local generation, and most supportive of nuclear. And as I think Bookchin noted, a wind farm owned by a multi-natational power corporation is not an alternative technology!)
Scarcity works dialectically with abundance, as the same system, at the same time as producing scarcity in the ways described above, also constructs ‘abundance’ as both a reality and an ideology. Most notably here, promoting the false consciousness that we can extract as much as we want from the planet… so, we literally get hit conceptually I both directions… and this keeps people confused!
In both cases then, the key ideological role is to obscure the real workings of the system – and to make it seem natural, incomprehensible etc etc
So, where does design and creativity fit in? Well, designed objects and built environments play important roles in maintaining both of these concepts (and researching that role is one of the aims of this project.) Designed objects and environments often obscure their conditions of production, and also obscure the flows that they are a part of. Design and creativity. (which we could define as specific forms of self consciousness?), are contained within particular divisions of labour.
So, we say that we want to critique the existing limiting division of labour that keeps creativity perpetuating a logic of scarcity, and we promote new expanded forms of creativity and design, that seek to both resolve the reality of scarcity, and expose the ideology of it. In both cases, this is achieved through a making visible and ‘democratic’ the ecology of economic flows through an extension of design (!!)
Instead of only saying that we accept scarcity, do we simultaneously say that we refuse it? Or perhaps we say that we accept it as we want to take control of it? Do we argue that scarcity is going to become an increasingly political term, and that we want to reveal the full meaning of the term?
Is the design task an ideological critique (in the sense of Tafuri) of the hidden conceptualisations of scarcity in existing design practices. Would an ideological critique look at different approaches and ask, in what ways are these design practices increasing false consciousness around the system of production? In what ways could they be revealing the networks and flows, or facilitating democratic ‘local’ control (and indeed ultimately ‘global’ control) of aspects of these systems, etc? What would the introduction of second order cybernetic, systems theory and ecology concepts bring to such a critique and practice?