Physics of Poverty: From Subsistence to Suprasistence

Monday August 15, 2011,

4 min Read

Dr. Tara
Physics of Poverty series by Dr. Tara Thiagarajan, Chairperson, Madura Microfinance Ltd.

Over half the world simply subsists – caught in a cycle of supporting ones immediate survival. More than half of India is a subsistence economy. The word subsistence is a derivative of the word ‘exist’ which comes from the Latin word existere meaning ‘to emerge’ or ‘to be’.  But what does it really mean to subsist? Typically it is thought of in terms of poverty – some amount of money that people earn - but to me it is not equivalent – I think it is better defined in terms of an energy use cycle.

Here’s what I mean. In rural India, according to the NSSO studies, people use 50% to 70% of their income to buy food which means the majority of expenditure goes towards fueling the survival of the body.  Compare this to the United States where it is around 20%. Similarly, an NCAER survey in the late 1970s showed that around 90% of fuel consumption in rural areas in India is used for cooking. I assume it’s improved now but venture to guess that it’s probably still in the range of 70% or more. In the United States only 15% of household energy consumption is for the kitchen. Furthermore, fuel consumption in rural India is still largely biomass – firewood ranks highest followed by dung and crop residue. An NIC report (I’m not sure which year) estimated that 89 million households spend 31 billion hours annually in biofuel gathering. That’s a lot of time. The subsistence cycle is thus to eat to sustain the body, use the energy to gather fuel and tend to the fields and livestock and then use the energy from these efforts to once again fuel the body. Petroleum, electricity and LPG together are minimally used not because of availability but because they must be paid for with money rather than time. And in this is an implicit judgement of human worth – that its value is little more than the kCalories expended per unit time to gather fuel or transform food on the cooking stove.

So what is the opposite of subsistence? What happens when you break out? I couldn’t find a term so I coined one: Suprasistence. The prefix ‘sub-‘ means below the opposite of which is ‘Supra- ‘ which is above. I define suprasist as creating value well beyond oneself, representing the capacity of the human brain to envision survival on larger scales in space (beyond family and community) and time (over many lifetimes) and to build new paradigms to enable this. The fuel of suprasistence is different. It is not food or fossil fuels but knowledge and information – a more complex form of energy. And the outputs cannot be measured in kilo calories or joules as in a simple transformation of matter. Rather its output is the creation of structure where there was none. It is entrepreneurship and innovation.

From subsistence to suprasistence is therefore not just a continuum in simple energy use. Food intake (one kind of simple energy) is a little different but not that different for people who subsist or suprasist. Fuel energy use is different but only to a point. Much of fuel consumption in developed economies goes towards maintaining environment (heating and cooling), and for transportation and more recently for electronic devices that enhance the flow of more complex energy – information and knowledge. However innovation is not simply a function of how much energy you spend on running your computer or ipad. The relationship between information input and creating new paradigms of structure and innovation is murky and not well understood. However, I imagine, if one were able to characterize it we would find that suprasistence is characterized by something qualitatively different than subsistence (for the physicists out there - a bifurcation in the system dynamics). These two ends of existence don’t operate on the basis of the same parameters. This is also why innovation is so hard to come by in subsistence economies.

Imagine however, instead of a world where most subsist, many exist and a few suprasist, if it were the other way around...

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