Welcome To Scarcenomics
“Progress just means that bad things happen faster”
Everything you need to know about climate change comes during a moment in Al Gore’s documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ where he likens humanity’s response to global warming to a frog getting slowly but happily boiled to death in gradually warming water. As science it is bullshit – there is no biological evidence that frogs are that stupid. But as a metaphor it is impeccable – we are all the frog. It is a simple, singular concept with the power to reframe people’s behavior, create disproportionate noise and enter everyday culture. Which is to say that this isn’t a debate that’s going to be won by hard science, reason, and stats, it’s going to be won by humanity, guts and a damn good story. This is a battle of ideas, and the stakes are unusually terrifying.
All the available evidence suggests that a century of industrialisation has raised humanity out of the medieval mud and dramatically improved almost everyone’s length and quality of life. Ironically, it also suggests that another couple of decades of exactly the same thing will mark a swift descent back to where we came from. Frankly, though, most of us are too bored and distracted to care – like we’ve all half-heartedly signed up to a global suicide cult on the condition that we can finish binge watching the second season of that new Netflix thing first. As a species we humans were already a masterclass in denial, but climate change has some very specific qualities that conspire to send this into overdrive. First, it is one of those spectacularly intangible phenomena, like quantum physics or Trump’s taxes, that it’s difficult to really believe in unless it’s literally ripping the roof off your house. Second it’s really, really complicated, which makes it hard for any one person to grasp the full picture, which also make it easy to reject out of hand. And third, by the time you are genuinely affected by it and start screaming for Someone To Do Something, the only thing you’ll actually be able to do is shrug and reach for one last dirty Martini to take the edge off the end of everything.
The issue isn’t so much that there’s nothing we can do about it, but that effective solutions require that we all act in a way contrary to everything we collectively value as a society. We have been conditioned to assume that it’s our inalienable right to have at least 23 different kinds of cheese spreads to choose from in the supermarket, that owning a car is a fundamental human need up there with breathing, and that wearing the same shirt to work more than once is a crime – not just against fashion but against basic dignity. In fact late-stage capitalism’s continuing dominance comes down to one simple, hideously seductive principle: the more we have, the more we are worth. Whilst climate change is technically an environmental problem, fixing it is essentially a cultural one – history’s most critical social engineering challenge.
Everyone alive today has grown up in an age of (unevenly distributed) abundance. Continuing as a species will require that we flip this prevailing view of the world, and adapt to living in an age of relative scarcity. An age where we can’t do and have exactly what we want, an age where regeneration doesn’t just mean a trip to the charity shop, an age where choice is narrowed not endlessly expanded, an age where we’re forced to start acting like adults rather than sulky, impulsive adolescents. An age of Scarcenomics, if you will. For those of us who start complaining when Starbucks runs out of Pumpkin Spice the change will be necessarily dramatic but there is no alternative to genuinely responsible behaviours becoming a collective badge of honour. The issue this poses for brands, of course, is that almost everything that we currently do for them is about generating the desire for more. More stuff, more money, more speed, more choice, more experience, more more and then still more. There’s a reason that Byron Sharp’s seminal book is called ‘How Brands Grow’, rather than ‘How Brands Slow In The Pursuit Of More Responsible Consumption Patterns’. Of course, all this ‘more’ is driven by the ultimate engine of capitalism, shareholder value, which creates an institutional demand for more, or else. It’s also driven by parts of the world that have come late to the party and are now playing an aggressive, pollution-heavy game of lifestyle catch up. And if you fancy a challenge try telling 1 billion Chinese to their faces that, sorry, they’re not allowed all the benefits that we enjoy because of all the bad choices we’ve made.
So what can we do about this as an industry? By all means buy an electric car, boycott anything with a plastic straw, write a vigorous letter to Parliament and then chain yourself to some railings outside it. The body language of pressure and protest takes many forms, all valuable in their own right. But there’s a more significant, if unfamiliar, role that advertising agencies have the potential to play in this: using our unique combination of outsider perspective and insider influence to become Fifth Columnists, working to course-correct the system from within. Because, whilst at first glance a world of scarcity would seem to represent a mortal threat to marketing’s very raison d’etre – like a very large Turkey voting enthusiastically for Christmas – it may actually represent advertising’s best hope of reclaiming some of the influence and relevance it has lost. A chance to shrug off the persistent chip on the industry’s collective shoulder and take a seat at the boardroom table guiding business towards a future that doesn’t involve cowering in underground bunkers. To help sell the world on a sea change in culture, from ‘more is more’ to ‘less is more’, and make that change stick. To quantify for brands the price of growth and the cost of its mitigation. And, most importantly, to help win the ongoing battle of ideas by creating big, culture-redefining solutions to the most difficult problem the planet has ever faced. After all, the choice is fundamentally a binary one. Either help brands and businesses embrace the profound implications of the coming age of scarcity and work to change culture from the inside out, or resign ourselves to oblivion. Always remembering that it’s difficult to advertise when there’s nobody left to advertise to. Your call.