Dougald Hine

Scarcity & abundance

A significant factor in how well or badly we handle the disruptions we are living through will be how our understanding of scarcity continues to evolve.

This applies to areas ranging from ground-level responses to economic decline, to the choices made by the environmental movement, to the adaptation of the "cultural industries" to technological change.

In most cases, scarcity is a function of the interaction between hard material realities and softer social and cultural realities. Economics is commonly defined as the study of "how people make choices under conditions of scarcity." (This definition can be traced back to Lionel Robbins' An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science, 1932.)

Mainstream economics has tended to treat "conditions of scarcity" as materially determined, not least because it tends to operate on the assumption that people can usefully be characterised as bottomless sources of desire.

Elsewhere, however, people have given greater thought to the social and cultural factors within the function of scarcity - and, more recently, this has come into interaction with discussions of the "information economy" (where "information" is characterised as peculiarly non-scarce, in contrast to traditional economic goods), and more radical "post-scarcity" thinking which anticipates a future in which new technologies make the reproduction of material goods as simple as the reproduction of data. In all these cases, it is easy to get carried away.

This is the beginning of a reading list on scarcity and abundance:

  • Garrett Hardin's article 'The Tragedy of the Commons' (1968) was originally published in the journal Science and became extremely influential in the discussion of resource management. But it should be read alongside a critique such as Simon Fairlie's 'The Tragedy of The Tragedy of the Commons' (which appeared in Dark Mountain: Issue 1, 2010).
  • 'Feast and Famine' (2005), an interview with Ian Boal, goes into the entanglement between economics and the natural sciences - and the way this has led to scarcity being presented as a natural phenomenon, rather than something with social and cultural factors.
  • Mike Davis's Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World (2001) is a powerful, polemical history of the interaction between climate systems and the establishment of global markets in basic commodities in the late 19th century.
  • Anthony McCann's article 'Enclosure Without and Within the "Information Commons"' (2005) probes some difficulties with the ways in which the language of "the commons" has been taken up in relation to the internet.
  • Dean Bavington, Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse (2010) considers the failings of "resource management" as a way of thinking about the world, in the context of a specific and spectacular failure. There is also an excellent episode of CBC's How to Think About Science in which Dean discusses this with David Cayley.
  • Pieter Tijmes, 'Ivan Illich's Break with the Past' in Lee Hoinacki and Carl Mitcham's collection The Challenges of Ivan Illich (2002) seeks to negotiate between Illich's historical narratives and René Girard's theory of "mimetic desire". However, from Tijmes' presentation, Girard's account of the cultural limitation of desire appears to offer no real break from the mainstream economist's definition of the human as a bottomless source of desire.
  • In Illich's own work, Toward a History of Needs (1978) marks the emergence of a theme which runs through his later work. By focusing on "the sociogenesis of needs" (as he puts it in this article, written for the 20th anniversary of the Whole Earth Catalogue), he brings a historical perspective to the demand side of the scarcity equation.

Here are a few other books and articles still on my "to read" list:

Finally, to reground what may seem like theoretical discussions, I have found it helpful in many contexts to think of "scarcity" and "abundance" as attitudes, ways of looking at a situation. This is not to deny the force of material conditions, but it is to say that - most of the time - there is social and cultural room for manoeuvre.

This insight is embedded in practices such as Asset-Based Community Development, where attention is focused on the overlooked and undervalued skills, knowledge, experience and other assets already present within a situation, rather than defining it in terms of needs, wants, deprivation and deficits.