I was thinking about the idea of abundance, wondering whether, as with so many things this year, it might be taking on a different feel. So I went and asked some people I thought might have some interesting ideas on it. And it turns out, they did:
The return of abundance?
As we tentatively move into the recovery phase following this year’s unprecedented events, our political leaders are once more trumpeting the need for growth, with the Prime Minister in July channelling Franklin D Roosevelt and the New Deal of post-Depression 1930s America. He neglected to mention Roosevelt’s caveat: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.”
One doesn’t have to be particularly militant to see that in recent years, the world has not scrupulously followed that adage. A world where steroid-boosted superyachts in the Mediterranean sail past leaking rubber dinghies crammed with economic migrants is not one which many of us, at heart, admire. So should we be cautious about welcoming the Growth-Is-All mantra this time round and temper our rush back to the cookie jar?
Professor Steven Gunn, Professor of Early Modern History at Merton College, Oxford, sees a hint of what he calls “the ambiguities of abundance” in Tudor England:
“Abundance would have meant very different things to different people in Tudor England. For the King, abundance was fitting: the monarch had to be magnificent enough to overawe rivals abroad and subjects at home. For others, abundance was a matter less of strategy and more of the quality of the harvest. Meanwhile, population growth and engagement with global trade enabled the newly wealthy to become more so, and the poor, poorer. The godly, as a note in the 1587 Geneva Bible said, shall have abundance because their heart is satisfied in God only. But what if they also had material abundance? Was that a sign of God’s blessing, or a sign of self-indulgence fed by the grinding of the poor? The ambiguities of abundance came together in the courtly splendour of the Tudor age, its unsettling economic change and its anxious spiritual self-examination.”
It seems that abundance and her sister, shortage, have always been hardwired into the human consciousness. The land-slave of ancient Sparta, the helot, could tolerate giving up to half of his harvest to his proprietor as long as the harvest was good; but in a bad year, he was still obliged to offer up as many bushels of grain and thus struggled to feed his family. But what happens, as with Lockdown, when we deliberately trigger that shortage?
Former banker and now successful thriller-writer Michael Ridpath: “The Corona virus has created pools of malevolent abundance. There is too much oil, oil prices have dived; there is too much labour, people are sitting at home when they could be working; there is too much saving, interest rates have plunged and the stock market has risen preposterously; there is too much borrowing. Of course some of this will sort itself out, the abundance will diminish and balance will be restored. But for the enormous factory that is the 21st century capitalist economy, abundance is not helpful.”
Lisa McCormack and John Schofield, co-owners of independent London garden centre The Battersea Flower Station, sustained their business through Lockdown by hand-delivering a smaller range of carefully selected plants and flowers to their customers’ doors. As John says: “Abundance is such a lovely word, but it’s old-fashioned. I close my eyes and imagine a harvest, an orchard windfall. We have so much material abundance in our world now, we’ve lost sight of what it means. Leaving a tray of geraniums and bacopa on someone’s front porch over the last few months has been such a simple joy.” Not a few commentators, witnessing the daily business carnage amongst the big corporates, are pointing to the smaller, local independents for signs of recovery.
Does this mean that we should be using this opportunity to re-envisage our understanding of abundance, to move it away from a purely materialist conception? Social entrepreneur and writer Rohini Nilekani believes so. She says of her home country, India: “As people return to life and work post the lockdown, some predictions point to a mad rush to do even more than before. Travel more, buy more, meet more people, eat out more — do more of more. The government too is expected to do more to restore economic growth and livelihoods. To achieve this, many states might roll back labour laws that took decades of human rights movements to build, and push aside hard-won environmental protection. One pathway is to shift from a mindset of scarcity to a mindset of abundance. For there is abundance everywhere, if only we look for it. Opportunities are everywhere — in energy, in mobility, in agriculture, and in livelihood generation. Last but not least, let’s unlock our spiritual treasure trove.”
Yoga teachers Preetam Kaur and Ratan Veer Singh of the Kundalini Yoga Collective endorse that idea. “Feeling abundant is a state of gratitude. Abundance allows us to breathe freely, to be ourselves. It frees us from the chains of Not-Enough. 2020 has given us an opportunity to revaluate our lives and re-orientate ourselves. The light has shone brightly upon what we do have and what we are most grateful for – our families, our homes, our pets, our breath. As we come out of lockdown the invitation is to nurture these feelings of gratitude so as to create a lasting feeling of abundance. Abundance is the knowledge that there is enough for everyone and that everything is available to you if you can tune into how plentiful the Universe is. We have enough. We are enough.”
One person who has had more abundance than most is artist and writer Molly Parkin. Money, love, sex, booze, art, friendship, travel: in her 88 years, she’s packed more in than most of us will ever experience. Sitting in the garden of her council flat in Chelsea, she summed up what abundance might really mean.
“I was brought up in Pontecymer, a Welsh mining valley, by amazing aunts. The First World War had killed off all the men. There was no difference between miners and teachers and shopkeepers; snobbery didn’t exist. And ever since, I’ve been surrounded by an abundance of attention and affection and love and opportunity. Abundance is about being open rather than closed. It goes with eagerness, attention to detail, giving your best instead of holding back. I’ve always been the one who said, I’ll do it, whether that was cleaning the stove or hosting an orgy. I think I wanted to push everything into my life because my aunts, when I was a child, hadn’t just lost their men, they lost their children too: my mother was the only child of my beautiful grandmother and her coalminer husband – all the other children died before they were ten. My life now is totally effortless: I sit in this garden, I paint, I think of the mountain top in Pontecymer I used to climb on my own to talk to God. But he’s not there Moll, they used to say – he’s in the Chapel. I’d say, he is, he’s up there where the sun is. He’s abundant.”
The post-Lockdown world will bring with it a host of new problems for us to face: problems of material scarcity, of increased political powers, concerns and trepidation about our social interactions. Perhaps by willing a new mutual understanding of abundance, we can envisage a more sustainable future for us all.
Professor Steven Gunn is Tutor in History and Professor of Early Modern History at Merton College, Oxford. His most recent book is The English People at War in the Age of Henry VIII. Michael Ridpath is a former City banker turned thriller writer. Lisa McCormack and John Schofield run the Battersea Flower Station (https://www.batterseaflowerstation.co.uk/). Rohini Nilekani (https://rohininilekani.org/) is a philanthropist and Founder-Chairperson of Arghyam, a foundation she set up for sustainable water and sanitation in India. Preetam Kaur and Ratan Veer Singh lead the London-based Kundalini Yoga Collective (https://kundaliniyogacollective.co.uk/). Molly Parkin is a painter and writer. She exhibits her work at the gallery run by her daughter Sophie, the Stash Gallery at Vout-o-Reenees (http://vout-o-reenees.com/).