The Four Abundances

Someday, if I am lucky, I would like to write a book called The Four Abundances. It would be about how four incredibly important things that were once impossibly scarce, became or will become, to everyone’s surprise, abundant:

  1. Water. Free and everywhere. So cheap my Berkeley landlady pays my water bill. This has been true for a long time.
  2. Knowledge. I mean general knowledge. Via the Web, reference book knowledge and news is instantly accessible for free. A recent development, although books and newspapers were a big step in this direction.
  3. Health. A future abundance. Health is far from abundant right now. On the other hand, health has improved dramatically during the last 200 years, as Robert Kugel has documented. It is clearly approaching abundance.
  4. Happiness. Another future abundance. I suppose it seems impossibly far off — but abundant water once seemed impossibly far off. Here it’s hard to find signs of improvement, much less approaching abundance. Depression has become more common, not less, during my lifetime.

My self-experimentation has convinced me that health and happiness depend on things that were common in Stone-Age life, just as there was enough water and knowledge during that time. (Now we have more than enough water and knowledge, which is fine.) We need to figure out what those elements are. Self-experimentation provides a way of doing so.

In my little corner of Beijing, transportation is becoming a fifth (or third) abundance. Mostly I ride a bike — my bike was free, costs pennies to maintain, doesn’t pollute, provides exercise, easy to park. For longer trips I take the subway (30 cents/ride) or a cab (a few dollars a ride). Many people take the bus (a few cents/ride). I might get an electric bike for a few hundred dollars. Doesn’t pollute, very cheap per mile, easy to park, little congestion.

I’ve thought about this for months; what made me finally decide to post this was noticing that two little tools I use every day — a penlight and a brush to clean my keyboard — were free, giveaways at trade shows.

5 Replies to “The Four Abundances”

  1. Seth,

    I think you are missing basic point. Almost nothing is free. You write:

    Water. Free and everywhere. So cheap my Berkeley landlady pays my water bill. This has been true for a long time.

    Well, it is not free since your landlady pays the bill, and you pay the landlady your rent, you are in essence paying for your water bill. Yes, she sends off a check to the utility company every month, but only b/c she knows your check is coming to her.

    Also, Lomborg, founder of the Copenhagen Consensus would disagree with your assertion that water is free, cheap and everywhere.

    http://www.copenhagenconsensus.com/Default.aspx?ID=1150

    1.1 billion people lack good, clean water supplies, and 2.7 billion have no access to proper sanitation. Sophisticated modern piped water networks are far too expensive for most developing countries, but there are a number of low cost local interventions which are very cost effective and can increase the quality of people’s lives significantly.

    Not only is water not free, there are a host of things you mention that are costly, but appear free or low-cost to you.

    For longer trips I take the subway (30 cents/ride) or a cab (a few dollars a ride). Many people take the bus (a few cents/ride).

    We don’t know the marginal cost of that subway ride, but I surmise that you are bearing all of it. I assume that like almost all public transportation, it is heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Meaning, it is not as cheap as you see it being.

  2. Jeremy and Patrik, “free” has multiple meanings. One is the price you immediately pay for something. By “everywhere” I meant in an average American’s life.

    You don’t agree that water is abundant at least some places and that this is amazing?

  3. Hi Seth,

    I think you used the word ‘free’ a bit inaccurately, I think you mean inexpensive or cheap, which is not quite the same as free. 🙂

    You don’t agree that water is abundant at least some places and that this is amazing?

    Something interesting to think about. Why is water relatively cheap to, say, diamonds? Sure, water is more abundant than diamonds, but we certainly cannot live without water, while the reverse is not true, no?

    Here is why: The marginal utility of water declines faster than that of diamonds. The second/third/nth diamond is just a little less valuable than its predecessor, while second/third/nth unit of water’s value declines faster.

  4. Thomas Jefferson said on the topic back in 1776: “It is neither wealth nor splendor, but tranquility and occupation, which give happiness.”

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