Iago, Othello and Odette are not thinking clearly. They have no food!

There is a book I want for Christmas. Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. By Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir.

Apparently when people are stressed about money, they make bad decisions.

Well, that makes sense, doesn’t it?

It makes me think about Leanne’s boots analogy. If you go shopping for winter boots and you are worried about having enough money to pay rent at the end of the month, you will probably buy the cheapest boots in the store knowing full well they are not waterproof and may fall apart in a month. Your next-door-neighbour who is not stressed will probably go to MEC and get a better deal.

Aaaah, that's better. Now gimme that IQ test again!
Aaaah, that’s better. Now gimme that IQ test again!

I want to quote an article about the book that appeared in The Economist. “There is a distinctive psychology of scarcity, argues Mr Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, a psychologist at Princeton University. People’s minds work differently when they feel they lack something. And it does not greatly matter what that something is. Anyone who feels strapped for money, friends, time or calories is likely to succumb to a similar “scarcity mindset”.

The article continues, “this mindset brings two benefits. It concentrates the mind on pressing needs. It also gives people a keener sense of the value of a dollar, minute, calorie or smile.” However, “This scarcity mindset can also be debilitating. It shortens a person’s horizons and narrows his perspective, creating a dangerous tunnel vision…Feeling poor lowers a person’s IQ by as much as a night without sleep.”

I heard on the CBC this morning that SUV and pick-up truck sales in 2014 have driven automobile sales to a new high. Why are we buying so many gas-guzzling vehicles? Combine that with the fact that the income gap between the rich and the middle class in Canada is getting wider and wider and I can’t help thinking that the poverty mindset is at play here. That tunnel vision (short term needs outweighing long-term wisdom) makes those low-monthly payments awfully attractive, doesn’t it?

Books are abundant
Books are abundant in Hammond

And doesn’t this scarcity fly in the face of the fact that Canada is an abundant society? In Hammond, a theme of abundance has developed. Free community libraries are multiplying, people give away stuff they don’t need, and neighbours help each other out. Maybe Annie Leonard  is right when she says in The Story of Stuff that it is  television advertising that makes us feel that we suck so badly we need to go and buy something to feel better about ourselves which means we have to work harder to buy the stuff and it goes on in a cycle. Maybe we could just stop.

I think this scarcity mindset is a big factor in our inertia in addressing climate change. All the climate scientists tell us clearly that the earth is warming, the climate is changing, more extreme weather is happening and our overproduction of greenhouse gases is the cause. We know what we have to do so why don’t we do it?

Because we are too busy–our time and money are too scarce–to think about some new-fangled solar panels, wind turbines,  heat pumps, or rain barrels. That’s just more stuff someone is trying to guilt us into buying that we just don’t have time for.

Surely this mindset comes into all our spending decisions, but especially when we choose between the ‘green’ and the ‘regular’ product.

100% recycled paper is more expensive and so is organic food.

Electric cars are more expensive than similar-sized gas cars.

Energy efficient appliances are more expensive than standard ones.

Stuff is abundant in Hammond.
Stuff is abundant in Hammond.

At least it seems that way. If we take the time to think and get out of our crisis mindset, all of these things, along with changes to our lifestyle, will make our lives better and even save us money.

It’s true that the money saved on my heating bill will not equal the initial price of the solar panels for years. If I buy them, however, I will have an incentive to live in my house longer (to realise the savings) and I will put down some roots in the neighbourhood, save on all the costs of moving, and feel darn good about myself. They will be worth the initial cost.

Our governments lately have been catering to our worst short-term thinking. We are offered $100 cash per month instead of quality, affordable childcare. We are promised immediate jobs, jobs, jobs and economic prosperity if we get our fossil fuels out of the ground as fast as possible. We are told that this is all justified because the world economy is a disaster and we must tighten our belts. On the other hand, Canada is doing great and we expect a nice fat surplus. But don’t relax, we will need to continue those oil industry subsidies a little longer. Wait, what?

Can we break out and think big picture and long term? When our boots wear out it is going to cost us more than just another pair.

Stephen Harper dissolved our National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy in 2011 but not before they could estimate that climate change will cost Canadians an annual $5 billion by 2020 and go way up from there, depending on how we respond to the challenge. Maybe he thought that Canadians, experiencing more and more financial stress, won’t be thinking clearly anyway, so information from the NRTEE is not necessary. Too cynical?

Fruit is abundant in Hammond.
Fruit is abundant in Hammond.

Lord Stern of World Bank fame has just followed-up his landmark 2006 review reaffirming that, as the Guardian puts it, “Halting the rise of carbon emissions is possible – not only possible, but achievable at a modest cost that will be more than outweighed by the manifest benefits. We spend a little more now, to recoup in the next few decades in the form of breathable air, drinkable water and an atmosphere that doesn’t cook us.”

Finally, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a Synthesis Report a few weeks ago which said the same thing: tackling climate change now will not cost us as much as we think and the costs of inaction are huge.

Thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy day to read this.

I wish you all the time you need and enough money to release yourself from the hold of the scarcity mindset. I wish this for you because I am a nice guy, but also because I want you to be able to think clearly so we can get ourselves out of this mess.


"Next time you want to get that shot, starve your own self, pal." said Iago.
“Next time you want to get that photo, starve your own self, pal.” said Iago.

Published by

James Rowley

James lives in Maple Ridge, BC, Canada with his amazing partner, Leanne Koehn, and their two amazing kids in their beautiful house. He studied Science and English Literature at the University of British Columbia where he met Leanne. He also studied acting for a while at Studio 58 in Vancouver. He works as a teacher of English and curriculum writer for new Canadians.

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