Opinion

The Ben Franklin solution for the coming age of scarcity

The basic human struggle for freedom, food, and energy will intensify on a global scale over the next few years. Doing more with less must become our mantra.

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Vast unrest in the Arab world today may seem like a singular phenomenon – a historical wave that crashes then recedes.

But with the earth soon to host 7 billion people, it would be naive to neglect a 21st-century reality: The basic human struggle for freedom, food, and energy will intensify on a global scale over the next few years. We've seen riots over rising food prices in recent years, and today's resurgent inflation at gas stations and grocery stores suggests more trouble ahead. We live, in short, in a global greenhouse surrounded by both swift and severe market forces.

We in the West have typically responded to the needs of growing populations through ingenuity in the service of more: more corn per acre, more highways, more government programs, more big-box stores and supermarkets, more personal and corporate wealth, more everything. History suggests one thing: This works – until it doesn't.

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And today, it's clear that our obsession with more, and our faith in the superabundance of resources, is not only hurting our environment, it's hollowing out the values that made America and other nations prosperous in the first place.

Instead, we must embrace a spirit of competitive frugality in the service of less. "Doing more with less" must become our mantra, aim, and rallying call to become more frugal, inventive, and diplomatic. It may seem like a radical concept, but it's simply the modern version of what Benjamin Franklin preached – and what most Americans practiced – three centuries ago. "Sloth makes all things difficult, but industry easy," Franklin reminded us. "He that rises late, must trot all day, and shall scarce overtake his business at night, while laziness travels so slowly that poverty soon overtakes him."

Road map to renewal

Franklin's wit and wisdom about self-determination and competitive frugality amount to much more than self-help talking points. They offer nothing less than a road map for national and corporate renewal – and a cleansing regimen for the modern soul made toxic by the relentless logic and lust for more.

Look around our small, spinning planet. Despite global economic slowdown, India, Brazil, Indonesia, and some Asian nations are thriving by being frugal and inventive at the same time. In the corporate world, Federal Express is prospering by moving more cargo with fewer trucks and planes. In both arenas, the willingness to do more with less is a winning formula. Indeed, as our world becomes defined by scarcity, the arts of competitive frugality may well become the defining feature of top-tier nations and global firms.

One silver lining of our stagnant economy is that it's forcing us to embrace these arts and keep improving them. Governments are learning how to protect more with less. Corporations are learning how to make more with less. And consumers are learning how to do more with less. Rising gas prices, for example, compel us to drive more slowly (and walk and bike more), leading to thousands fewer auto deaths.

In our post-World War II era of abundance, our brightest minds in business aimed for growth by selling more and more to the public. Today, in an era of scarcity, the brightest minds in business are generating value by using less water, less carbon, and creating less industrial waste. "Lost time is never found again," Franklin admonished. Likewise, natural resources and fossil fuels lost to waste are seldom found again.

This spirit of competitive frugality will require giving up the impulse of first use, ease, and indulgence. Such a spirited human response remains part of our cultural DNA. It is, as psychologist B.F. Skinner put it, the kind of education that "survives after what has been learned has been forgotten." This primal knowing proves a path of increased satisfaction, as well.

An urgent quest

The pursuit of market answers to social problems regarding mobility, safety, sustainability, and the quality of life for our planet's 7 billion people cannot be done leisurely. It requires aggressive innovation. The combination of massive unrest in the Middle East, aging populations and deep debt in the West, and environmental destruction everywhere makes it an urgent quest.

One way we can accelerate our competitive frugality is to redefine our concept of, and relationship to, money. We typically see money in purely quantitative terms, as the unit measure of happiness – which is why we always want more of it. Yet money is also about respect, reputation, and social capital. So where did we go wrong? Why have vengeance, criminality, extortion, and embezzlement become so common in global business today? At least some blame lies with the culture of business schools.

Today, if we asked the best-trained MBAs from Wharton or Harvard, "What do we mean by 'money,' 'commerce,' and 'company'?" they might say, "I have no clue. Give me the money." Why have we gone senile as capitalists? In the context of scarcity, a company is conceived as a social response to opportunity. You succeed because you are doing something better, with less waste, than your competition. There is a social satisfaction in knowing this. Perhaps this is the first step back from the brink.

As we chart a new century, Franklin isn't the only writer who can guide us. The Irish poet William Butler Yeats explores several relevant themes in a wonderful 1897 essay, "William Blake and the Imagination." Yeats notes: "There have been men who loved the future like a mistress, and the future mixed her breath into their breath and shook her hair about them.... William Blake was one of these men ... because in the beginning of important things ... in the beginning of any work, there is a moment when we understand more perfectly than we understand again until all is finished."

Safeguarding our future

Yeats is exactly right. We are at the beginning of important work – the work of safeguarding our future. And our individual and collective love for the future will impel the understanding we need to set the right course. It's true that scarcity usually begets creativity. But necessity can't be the only mother of invention. We must start by redefining prosperity itself, away from the consumption of ever-more goods and services, toward the sustainability of life itself. The higher facts of natural challenges require this higher, more diplomatic, human response.

In the past century, the high-water marks of creativity amid scarcity came during major wars, when R&D devoted to destruction gave us stunning new technologies, from nuclear energy to titanium and biofuels. In this century, we must marshal the same inventiveness and technical genius in the service of sustainability. And make no mistake: Sustainability is no mere idle aspiration – it's a war against our own future destruction.

Bruce Piasecki, president and founder of the management consulting firm AHC Group, is the author of several books on corporate strategy. This essay is based on his forthcoming book, "Doing More with Less: Another Way to Wealth."

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