Behind the dry equations and supply and demand curves of modern economics lies an entire anthropology. Humans, it posits, are fundamentally acquisitive beings, seeking to satisfy infinite wants in a finite world, directing our limited resources toward the satisfaction of unlimited demands. As economist Lionel Robbins put it, “We have been turned out of Paradise. . . . Everywhere we turn, if we choose one thing we must relinquish others. Scarcity of means to satisfy given ends is an almost ubiquitous condition of human behavior.”
But however intuitive this view feels today—it really does seem correct when I have to decide whether my paycheck will go toward attending a concert, or seeing a movie, or buying a new economics book—it’s far from the only way to conceive of humans and their environment. Modern economists’ conception of scarcity has such a monopoly on our imagination, Fredrik Albritton Jonsson and Carl Wennerlind argue in Scarcity: A History from the Origins of Capitalism to the Climate Crisis, only because we’ve forgotten the many competing approaches out there. By revealing alternative ways of thinking about scarcity, abundance, and growth over the last 500 years, Jonsson and Wennerlind—intellectual historians at the University of Chicago and Barnard College, Columbia University—hope to show how “scarcity itself can and should be liberated from its connotations in modern economics.”
Scarcity offers a crash course on the many musings that philosophers, artists, theologians, and economists have had on the topic. And despite their hostility to modern economics, Jonsson and Wennerlind reveal one deep similarity between it and rival accounts: in every case, the seemingly mundane topic of scarcity raises some of the most foundational questions one can ask. Jonsson and Wennerlind’s historical investigations helpfully illustrate how tawdry matters of getting and spending have always been underlaid by questions about man, nature, technology, and their relations.
Unlimited Desire vs. Limited Nature
Jonsson and Wennerlind identify two broad schools of thought that have taken shape across the centuries. The Cornucopian ideology calls for “an active mastery of nature together with a dynamic and expansive notion of desire.” It optimistically envisions people’s ability to reap the bounties of nature so that it can provide for our many, indeed insatiable, wants, and it sees the expansion of knowledge and technology as the surest way to do so. Such figures as philosophers Francis Bacon and David Hume and economists Adam Smith and Paul Samuelson celebrated people’s ability to push back the boundaries of ignorance and poverty and advance learning and commerce for, as Bacon put it, “the relief of man’s estate.” For them, science enables us to uncover nature’s secrets, while technology and trade allow us to put those secrets to good use, raising our standard of living and continually improving our lot.
In the other corner is the Finitarian ideology, which emphasizes “the limits to human power over nature and the need for constraint and moderation of human desires.” The Finitarians generally see nature as altogether more mysterious, but also more fragile, than the Cornucopians do—a subject more fitting for stewardship than for domination. Because nature’s resources can be depleted or disturbed, society must learn to curb its wants, aim for “good enough” rather than “always more,” and thereby strike a stable balance between means and ends. From the Romantic meditations of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Ruskin, through the bleak visions of David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus, and culminating in the warnings of modern environmentalists such as E. F. Schumacher, Finitarians tend to be a more dour bunch, exhorting us to keep our demands in check, and cautioning against the hope that new technologies will solve perennial problems.
Are these groupings simply another way of listing capitalism’s champions and critics? Not quite; for Jonsson and Wennerlind, scarcity forces us to think through questions far more expansive than simply whether free markets are good or bad—for example, whether man is a part of, or above, nature, and how the deployment of technology transforms both. Theologians such as Thomas More and François Fénelon and novelists such as Daniel Defoe and Joris-Karl Huysmans had weightier questions on the mind than how exactly government should or shouldn’t regulate economy. Scarcity’s exposition of such a wide array of thinkers compellingly conveys the range of thought given to matters that are today cordoned off in the economists’ province (although the summaries are sometimes given too summarily—can one really learn anything about Martin Heidegger in two pages?).
Scarcity also reveals many surprising ironies and affinities that a mere debate over capitalism would obscure, such as the tension between thinkers’ premises and their predictions. The Cornucopians might celebrate the ability to achieve our many desires, but only because they start from bleak convictions about how, in our postlapsarian state, we can never be satisfied. For them, one choice always forecloses another—just look at the glee with which economists will ruin a good meal with the reminder that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The pessimistic Finitarians, in contrast, while somberly calling attention to our, and nature’s, limitations, just as often find themselves daydreaming, as do Karl Marx and Charles Fourier, of the frabjous day when we will attain all we need, and want no more than that.
Economics for a Damaged Planet
But that day hasn’t come yet. For now, Jonsson and Wennerlind say, we face the new state of “planetary scarcity,” in which climate change and environmental destruction reveal more clearly than ever the limits of our resources and what we can demand of them. Although for most of Scarcity, the authors avoid weighing in on whether they think a particular thinker is right or wrong, here the gloves come off. They put much of the blame for our environmental plight on “Neoclassical Scarcity,” the turbocharged Cornucopianism behind modern economics—although even neoclassical economists would concede the sound principles behind the slogan “There is no Planet B.”
Jonsson and Wennerlind argue that although the Cornucopians have had a good run, preserving the earth will come about only through the adoption of a Finitarianism suited to our time. In this respect, Scarcity’s “genealogical approach to historical knowledge” successfully reveals the contingency of our ideas, and therefore the possibility of thinking otherwise.
One need not be a card-carrying member of the eco-extremist Extinction Rebellion to sympathize with the authors’ call for such a rethinking today. And though they are at too great pains to insist that today’s environmentalists are not “simply reactionary or nostalgic,” they are right that returning to a pastoral past is not possible—if only because the pastures have been destroyed. Responding to today’s environmental and economic challenges thus requires not yelling “stop!” but asking, now what?
By their own admission, Jonsson and Wennerlind do little more than gesture toward a new account of scarcity, but expanding on their prolegomena will probably require blurring the border between Cornucopia and Finitaria. An emerging movement among policymakers and wonks today calls for a Cornucopian “abundance agenda,” correctly arguing that the scarcity in affordable housing, quality education, clean energy, and other areas is largely self-imposed through bad policy, not inherent limits. According to this view, such widely recognized maladies as declining life expectancy, stagnating wages, the rising costs of raising a family, and environmental degradation are the result not of overstepping our boundaries, but of a failure to build and create with the resources available to us.
At the same time, the anomie pervading society vindicates the Finitarian caution that no amount of hedonic indulgence can make us happy—an obvious point, perhaps, and yet one that we continually prove ourselves incapable of learning. (Ironically, the Cornucopians obliquely concede this very truth in their insistence on the intrinsic impossibility of desires’ satiation.) Civilization needs more than the promise of endless material improvement to keep itself going.
To think otherwise is to make the bet that a growing horn of plenty will always be forthcoming, and that it will sufficiently compensate for, or distract from, all the deeper needs of the human person. And this is just the wager the United States has made for many decades now. Consider the recent Wall Street Journal survey finding that more Americans than ever see money as “very important,” while the importance of religion, patriotism, having children, and community involvement have plummeted. If our material desires are infinite, and we allow the satisfaction of those desires to become society’s highest goal, what will happen when the music stops, our demands go unsatisfied, and there is nothing left to fall back on? Mounting debts, sluggish growth, and declining fertility rates suggest we are already finding out.
And if we think of the state of America’s political economy today as the payoff of a bad bet, then perhaps the reminder we need most is, as Robbins’s hearkening to Genesis attests, an even older one, owing less to Milton Friedman than to Adam: that the freedom to choose always entails the freedom to choose wrong. In that case, we should expect the pains of scarcity to continue for some time yet.