The Myth and Reality of Scarcity

Scarcity as an economic concept is easy enough to understand. If I have a bowl of peanuts and plan on eating them like a normal (non-allergic) human being, then those peanuts are scarce. I cannot just regurgitate them and eat them again. Well, I could, but that’s neither physically nor mentally healthy. It also means that because I am eating them someone else is not eating them. Unlike a mother bird, I cannot regurgitate them into someone else’s mouth. For non-edible items, such as minerals or oil, the idea is the same, minus the regurgitation analogy. Once a mineral is extracted, processed and put in your cell phone, it cannot be extracted again. Although it may be recycled, it cannot be used by multiple cell phones or for more than one device or purpose at a time. My economist friend will have to correct any lack in my understanding.

The myth is not that scarcity exists, but that it requires a state of competition and accumulation in which the best possible system is one where our individual desires are sanctified and pitted against each other. The myth is that this competition in a free market will eventually result in abundance for all, thus seemingly undoing its own understanding of scarcity and the need for a competitive free market. The prevailing notion is that the implication of scarcity, the fact that if I have something you cannot, means that there is not enough and we must therefore accumulate and hoard in order to guarantee our survival (or comfort depending).

In a finite world it is true that my accumulation cannot simply continue infinitely without affecting others and becoming a primary cause of other people’s poverty. The problem is not that there is not enough stuff. The problem is that some accumulate more than others. The excess that we end up pouring into landfills, oceans and shipping to developing countries is not equitably distributed. In the end it does not even benefit those who accumulate it causing environmental degradation and the conditions for revolutions, rebellions and terrorism around the world. An obsession with security and xenophobia will continue to pervade the milieu of North America as long as we cling so desperately to things we don’t need.

The problem seems to be that a distinction is not made in the popular mind (perhaps in the intellectuals as well) between the economic concept of scarcity used to describe the world and the way human beings interact with each other and the natural world and the idea that there is just not enough stuff to go around. Perhaps the accuracy of various economic descriptions of the former can be debated, but the latter is patently false. So scarcity is both a reality and a myth. It is real in that things are finite and cannot be used or possessed by more than one person at a time, but it is a myth that this means there is not enough stuff for everyone to have enough.

In Luke 3:11 John the Baptist says “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” There´s both the reality of scarcity and the abundance of the kingdom in one sentence.

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