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March 5, 2009

thinking about scarcity

Environmentalists rightly argue that we should be much more aware of scarcity. Resources run out; there is only so much waste that the earth can absorb; and exploiting habitats causes species to vanish. Environmentalists are not the only ones who recommend paying attention to scarcity. A budget, for example, is a representation of limited resources. Any household, organization, or nation should live within its budget. Raising awareness of scarcity is a project that I can sign up for.

On the other hand, some resources are not finite. We can make as many new cultural products as we want. Works of art, music, or literature from one cultural background need not deprive other traditions of space or resources. Ideas spread without losing their value; often they gain importance because of their diffusion. As Jefferson wrote, "He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me."

The Internet is another great example of a basically infinite resource. (Computers use electricity, but the amount of energy per byte is cut in half every 18 months.) More generally, there is no obvious limit to the growth and diffusion of human opportunity, so long as that growth takes the right forms. We cannot all get richer if that means that we all buy Hummers. But we can all get richer.

When scarcity dominates people's thinking, they are unlikely to trust others. We may cooperate if we feel that we must, since resources are limited; but we seem to cooperate better when we are optimistic and expect everyone to win. There is "an association between distrust and economic insecurity and a limited-good view of the world" (Orlando Patterson, "Liberty Against the Democratic State," in Mark E. Warren, Democracy and Trust, p. 155). Harry Boyte once argued on this blog that creative civic populism arises in times of optimism and growth, whereas narrowly technocratic and hierarchical politics is more typical when people are conscious of scarcity. Twentieth-century fascism played off scarcity, while FDR promised an infinite expansion of opportunity.

I would conclude that an awareness of scarcity is not intrinsically virtuous. It all depends on whether the good in question is actually scarce. We should be frugal with limited resources, but generous and extravagant with goods that that can be created infinitely.

March 5, 2009 11:25 AM | category: none


One thing there is plenty of is a resource called human capital or ingenuity. Up until now that resource has been very good at dealing and transcending the scarcity of other resources such as the natural ones and food. When scarcities have occurred with natural resources humans have discovered alternatives. And food production has always increased despite the shrinking of the labour force in agriculture.

I think one of the things that caused our economic crisis is that there wasn't enough scarcity, especially with the availability of cheap money. That cheap money went on to produce and build to much. At the moment the world is awash with to much of everything, except the liquidity to keep it all going. (Ironically, better 'budgeting' could have prevented this meltdown.) Let's hope the human resource will devise new ways to bring back sustainability and a more balanced state. I think it will.

March 5, 2009 1:18 PM | Comments (2) | posted by airth10

It is right to identify the type of resources or "goods" that are said to be scarce, as difference exists. Is the scarcity emphasis a factor in gloom-n-doom environmentalism?

I never fully accepted or rejected Julian Simon's classic response to eco-crises -- human ingenuity. "In 1900, Londoners could have predicted horsesh*t in the streets reaching the moon by the year 2000. Instead, we created a different type of transportation. Horsesh*t solved! We'll find something other than fossil fuels when it gets to expensive to drill." But there IS something different about carbon-based fossil fuels vs. say, magic soy beans. Such carbon fuels aren't renewable (for millions of years). They developed over millenia into high concentrations of potential energy. Simon simply didn't differentiate, and that made him optimistic.

Another reason I don't think optimism =creativity, scarcity = nativism & ignorance. There's a new website http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/ which comes from Wendell Berry and Christopher Lasch traditions -- that limits are healthy, they make us who we are, we aren't destined to be slaves to our desires but called to order them. This position suggests that growth oriented Dems and Reps (both labor and management, polluters and eco-designers) are batting for the same team of Endless Growth. There's optimism and then there's naivety...

Not sure where I stand, but they're an interesting read over there.

March 8, 2009 10:56 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Scott D

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