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Shell Game

The Law of Scarcity simply states that if what we desire appears to be in limited supply, the perception of its value increases significantly.

“So now you’re getting picky? When we first got here, you wanted all the shells!”

She said it kiddingly as her significant other poked and prodded in the sand for just the right specimen, the perfect souvenir to take home with him. His reaction was nonverbal, simply a shrug of the shoulders as if to say, “Why not? Look at all the opportunities!”

We heard the comment while relaxing on an ocean beach recently, part of a quick getaway or as Joanie so aptly defined it, “our reward for enduring another Midwestern winter.” After sitting in the Sun and soaking in some much-needed energy and Vitamin D (responsibly of course, both of us wearing hats and slathered in a minimum of 30 SPF sunscreen), we decided to walk along the water, dip our feet, cool off and look for some shells.

Early on, I was mesmerized (as always) by the way the water flows in and out, seeing the waves breaking, then smooth out as they approached the shoreline. I also like to look to the horizon and try to fathom the sheer magnitude of the ocean, and it blows my mind. After a few minutes taking in the scope and beauty of all of it, I noticed the shells, but not because they’re such a rare sight for my Wisconsin eyes. This time, it was different.

I’ve walked on a lot of beaches in my day, and I have to say I’ve never seen the volume, variety and sheer vastness of seashells I saw that day. They were everywhere, sometimes in piles as if someone had used a shovel, but it was just the tide doing its constant, necessary, metronomic work of pushing and pulling, breaking down and creating that had deposited these beautiful, calcified things on the beach, once serving as protection for a variety of sea creatures, now ready to be recycled and reused as something else but no less valuable.

As we walked and looked for shells, something clicked in my head and my behavior changed from someone who simply appreciated the natural beauty of these specimens, whether or not they were small, broken or misshapen, to that of a choosy consumer, suddenly interested in only the large, the perfect and the most colorful specimens I could find.

I know full well that today’s shells create tomorrow’s beaches, the tides working their magic to break down these amazing structures into a fine powder. And I also know that beach sand is becoming scarcer every day because so many industries rely on it, from construction to manufacturing and many others.

So, as we walked, I realized that every shell I grabbed to take home was one more that would never contribute to the future -- and the sustainability -- of this beach. Yet, like so many others that day, I too wanted a couple of souvenirs to take home with me.

And because of the sheer volume of shells, Joanie and I – like the couple mentioned above and so many others -- could “afford” to be more discriminating in those we chose to take with us.

That, in a nutshell (or in this case, a seashell), is human nature. Because I don’t live near an ocean, walking on a beach or spending time among the seashells and observing birds pecking at the sand with their long beaks or others dive-bombing the water to catch fish a rare experience (i.e., “scarce”), and it opens my eyes to wonders I don’t see every day.

Yet, it only took me a couple minutes of “abundance” in this scenario to reset my standards, which led to me to start evaluating which shells were “worthy” of my time and attention. Interesting, isn’t it?

During our walk, Joanie and I grabbed a “responsible number” of shells to take home with us; certainly not enough to contribute to the sand shortage or to threaten the sustainability of this beach -- though I guess if enough people grabbed the same number of shells we did that day, over time, it could have an impact -- and we returned to our beach towels to relax for a while longer.

During that time, I reflected on what we’d just experienced and thought to myself, “There’s a lesson in all this.” And then, I thought about the value of scarcity, and how it can help us appreciate the simple, the different, and the presumably “imperfect.” Then, I let that thought sink into my subconscious, where hopefully, I’ll absorb the lesson, refine it, and someday, I’ll return it to the world as something positive, valuable and sustainable …

… just like the tide grabs those shells and returns them as a beautiful, amazing white sand beach.

© 2023 David R. Haznaw

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