‘Surplus’

The bane of human existence.

Photo by Tim Cooper on Unsplash

Up until a few thousand years ago (for those, like this author, who accept the scientific narrative), the concept of “surplus’ was foreign to human beings. Life was all about procuring enough: for the day (and perhaps at most a few days’ worth).

[For those who prefer the Biblical narrative, this story really starts at the same place: the sons of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, were the first farmer and husbandman, respectively — and according to the Bible, Cain “built the world’s first city.”]

For millennia, according to scientists, groups of human beings had hunted and gathered, roaming the land in seeking sources of enough food, water, and protection against the elements.

Life was focused on survival. The individual depended for survival on the group and the group needed its members to be able to contribute for the group to survive.

That necessarily engendered a certain ethic within the group: one for all and all for one. Back then, that was the ethic that governed the governance all groups of human beings. Whatever its specific form of governance might have been, the goal of every group was to fulfill the dictates of that ethic.

Then came agriculture and husbandry. Suddenly, the idea of an ongoing surplus presented itself.

That idea changed the nature of society. Control of the surplus became the focus of governance.

Those who had control soon realized that they had the power to decide what counted as surplus — and for whom: ‘surplus’ was deemed to be relative to a person’s status in society. Surplus was thus the necessary (and sufficient?) condition for the existence of wealth. The symbiotic relationship between wealth and power was established.

The history of civilization (the existence of cities) has been the history of surplus. We are about to re-learn the value of ‘enough’. We can either take measures to establish bounds on consumption to ensure there will be enough, or the process of continuing to seek to maximize surplus will destroy civilization as we know it and create for all human beings all over again a physically experienced appreciation of ‘enough’.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Stephen Yearwood

unaffiliated, non-ideological, unpaid: M.A. in political economy (where philosophy and economics intersect) with a focus in money/distributive justice