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The Science of Abundance

by Andrew Butts, 2019 Acara Fellow


Three Ghosts

The truth doesn’t win out. Great ideas don’t win out. Justice doesn’t win out. Dogged persistence does. Small groups of people creating hope in the darkness win out.

When I started this journey towards the Green Neighbor Challenge, I was immediately confronted by the three ghosts of the status quo: past, present, and future. “People have tried before, they’ve all failed.” “You’re wasting your time, what you need doesn’t exist.” “Even if it works, will it even matter?” They take many faces, even those of well-meaning friends, family, and advisers, but they ask in chorus, “Who do you think you are?”

The Green Neighbor Challenge is a web-tool and social media campaign to help anyone in the US sign up for green energy. Sixteen months later, I can tell you it’s possible because we’re doing it. Sixteen months later, the project is much improved from where it started. Sixteen months later, I can tell you that if just 2% of households switched, there would be $967 million in public health benefits, irrespective of climate.

Sixteen months ago, I was getting ready to give up on this project when my friend Aaron finally said “This is great! Let’s do it. What comes next?”

Let’s return to the ghosts not as an I, but a We. 

How might WE?

We live in a world organized by hierarchies that tell us what we can do, what we should do, and what we must do… especially if we want to get paid. First by parents, then by school, and finally by employers. This is an emergent property of a world designed around scarcity. A world that tells us 1+1 is less than 2 because the second law of thermodynamics. I’m here to tell you 1+1=3… or purple, because everything you know is made up.

In a world of abundance, everything is possible. There are undoubtedly innumerable incantations to summon the world of abundance. My two favorites are “Yes, and…” and “How might we…?” Returning to my friend Aaron’s words sixteen months ago, he said both. Then everything changed. It was while meeting with Aaron that we ran into Megan Voorhees, right as she was preparing the launch of the Acara Changemakers Lab. Here was the program that would provide structure and feedback to a year of our efforts. Here is where our idea became a venture. 

Yes, and…” comes from the improv tradition. “How might we?” from design thinking. Neither are performed alone, and both aim to create something unique and new. Solo improvisers still rely on an audience and design thinkers still require a user. Acara recreates these conditions in academia.

Because science is no different.

Science-Fulfilling Prophecies

To tackle the greatest challenges before us, science cannot remain neutral. Scientists cannot remain neutral. We get the science we ask for. If the questions we ask each other inside these Ivory Towers are those of the status quo, that is what we shall receive. The science we need is a science of abundance, a science of the previously impossible, a Science for the People.

I don’t have the solution. But we do. The Green Neighbor Challenge is just a patch of fabric in the tapestry that is the environmental justice movement, connected to what is, and inspired by what came before. Our initial concept has grown beyond green pricing and now we aim to offer people a menu for additional action once they’ve made the switch. This is about more than an action, it’s about inspiring people with agency. It’s about offering a hand and asking, “what comes next?”.

We are the solution. We are contingent upon one another. We are not independent. We breathe the same air. We drink the same water. We share a common history. We exist in the same system of relations everyone else does. But we can change our relations to those around us. And rather than asking less of them, we can ask more. We can ask more of ourselves. And when we do, we get the world we asked for. 

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