The Myth of Scarcity and Conclusion

The following is an excerpt (and rough draft) of a chapter I’m working on about sustainability. I have a limit of 2000-4000 words. As usual I’m trying to cram as much as possible into that limit. Much of this rehashes (and in some cases pillages) other writing I’ve done on the blog, but hopefully the synthesis brings out something new. I will be posting excerpts here for feedback and your reading pleasure as they are finished. My working title is “Why Recycling Doesn’t Matter”.

We have successfully segregated many disciplines and fields of study from each other. One of the most glaring cases of this is the division between environmentalism and economics. Politicians of various stripes can often be heard claiming that protecting the environment will cost jobs and hurt the economy. Those who argue for environmental regulation also buy into this myth by trying to argue that it will not hurt jobs, but potentially fuel a green technology revolution spurring economic growth. Both sides continue to base their arguments on the unquestioned belief in the necessity of economic growth. E.F. Schumacher explains this well,

“From an economic point of view, the central concept of wisdom is permanence… Nothing makes economic sense unless its continuance for a long time can be projected without running into absurdities. There can be ‘growth’ towards a limited objective, but there cannot be unlimited, generalised growth…The cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom.”[1]

“The cultivation and expansion of needs” is at the very heart of our consumer economy. Advertisers and marketers are paid large sums of money in order to convince us that we “need” the products of the companies they represent. The problem of sustainability can be summed up as the modern confusion of the difference between “needs” and “wants.”

Scarcity Versus Abundance
One of the foundational assumptions in modern economic thought is the concept of scarcity. The idea is that human wants and needs are unlimited and therefore the resources available to satisfy those needs is scarce. Capitalism claims to solve this problem by efficiently allocating scarce resources using the tools of the market. Capitalism has certainly achieved many things and was an improvement over previous economic arrangements (i.e. Feudalism). Unfortunately, the current economic arrangement does not accurately account for things such as the value of common goods which include natural resources like air and water quality, topsoil and biodiversity.

The truth is that the earth naturally provides an abundance of resources. Mahatma Gandhi said, “The Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not for every man’s greed.”[2] This truth exposes the fallacy of the basic economic assumption of scarcity. Scarcity only exists if human wants and needs are, in fact, unlimited. Advertising executives are betting that they will be able to continue creating “needs”, but the ecological constraints of our natural resources are quickly running into conflict with these executives. If we hope to achieve sustainability, we must recognize that our basic economic assumptions must be overturned and alternatives to an infinite growth, consumer economy sought.

An Alternative, Sustainable Economy
Collaborative consumption, social entrepreneurship, steady-state economics, the sharing economy and sabbath economics are some of the alternative economic possibilities circulating as people struggle to find new ways to live and work together that depend less on an extractive, growth economy.[3]One way to begin making these changes is to shift how we think about ourselves from primarily consumers to producers. In the future we may not be able to rely on distant others to produce the things we need.

Here are some examples. Social entrepreneurs are asking good questions about profit being the only bottom line in our economics. They are building companies which include the well-being of the environment and workers into their business models. These are often referred to as companies with a triple-bottom line. In California they have a legal structure called Benefit Corporations for such businesses.[4] My own small company, Edible Lawns, is one such business, partnering with other local non-profits to educate consumers about sustainability, increase participation in the local food economy, create sustainable landscapes that conserve water and train low-income individuals with the skills to start their own socially and environmentally responsible businesses.

There are also businesses and communities dedicated to reducing our consumption through sharing economies. Zipcar and Airbnb are two of the most well known examples of businesses built on the sharing economy.[5] In my community people share cars, tools, meals and other resources. While businesses may be able to bring some scale to this problem, we can all begin to practice sharing economics by creating networks of interdependence. Instead of purchasing new appliances like a “good” consumer, consider seeking out others with whom you can share resources. We can also learn how to repair and maintain old equipment instead of filling landfills, while sharing this knowledge and skills with others.

As Christians our tradition contains invaluable resources for practicing an alternative economics in the midst of a world bent on destruction and death. The Sabbath practices of the Hebrew Bible culminate in the year of Jubilee.[6] This is a visceral and practical embodiment of the right-relatedness embraced by the Hebrew word shalom. This theme is picked up by the prophet Isaiah[7] and later by Jesus when he delivers his Lukan Manifesto[8] in the synagogue as a vision for the way that our lives together should be arranged.[9]

Conclusion
The situation is dire and it does no one good to pretend that everything will just work out somehow. We must stare into the darkness of the road we are on and ask ourselves the difficult questions about the choices we have made as a species. We must ruthlessly work out the slow, inevitable calculus of the ecological systems that we have ruined for our own selfish ends. The biggest and most deadly myth of all is that this is just the way things are and there is nothing we can do about it. The selfishness that tempts us to make the most of our time left on a sinking ship is the very heart of what the Christian tradition calls sin.

As we let go of the myths that continue to lead us down the broad path which leads to destruction, we must learn to listen to those voices which have been marginalized. As we alluded to earlier, indigenous peoples have much wisdom for the problems of modern civilization. Hunter-gatherers understood how to live with the food that the earth provides without human intervention. Minorities (which comprise the majority of the world’s population) see many of these issues differently than those in the dominant culture. They provide much needed perspectives on how we got into this mess in the first place.

None of the above ideas is a silver bullet that can solve our problems by themselves, but together they point us to better ways of organizing our lives together and possible solutions for how to live sustainably on this planet. There are capitalists trying to account for these problems in the way that they do business. There is a growing movement of farmers dedicated to reconnecting us to the source of our sustenance while caring for the earth in the way that they grow our food, keeping and tilling it.[10] There are communities of faith trying to embody these values in their life together. There are many more engaged in a variety of ways in trying to solve the greatest problem our species has ever faced. The question, as always, is whether we will be part of the solution or part of the problem.


[1]  E.F. Schumacher. Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. New York: Harper & Row, 1975, 33.

[2] Quoted by Pyarelal Nayyar in Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase (Volume 10), page 552 (1958)

[3]  Shareable is a website full of resources, stories and news about the sharing and solidarity economy. http://www.shareable.net. Information about sabbath economics can be found on Ched Myers website http://chedmyers.org.

[4]          See http://www.bcorporation.net

[5]          See http://www.zipcar.com and http://www.airbnb.com.

[6]          Leviticus 25:8-55

[7]          Isaiah 61:1-2

[8]          Luke 4:16-20

[9]          See author’s work on this theme at his blog (https://wwje.wordpress.com) as well as Ellen Davis’ book Scripture, Culture and Agriculture.

[10]         Genesis 2:15

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