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