26 July 2023

Scarcity: A History from the Origins of Capitalism to the Climate Crisis

Fredrik Albritton Jonsson and Carl Wennerlind
2023, Harvard, 290 pages,
ISBN 9780674987081

Reviewer: Kevin Gardiner, Rothschild & Co/Cardiff Capital Region Econ Growth Partnership

This book by two US history professors challenges us to think differently about the notion of scarcity. It does so by reminding us that humankind has not always seen the world through the lens of neoclassical economics. The book is free of jargon and spurious mathematics. It is very readable, and colourful (see their account of “sumptuary laws”, for example). I enjoyed it – but am not convinced.  

The authors identify several different conceptions of scarcity. In historical order, these are: Neo-Aristotelian; Utopian; Cornucopian; Enlightened; Romantic; Malthusian; Socialist; Neoclassical; and Planetary. With the exception of the first two, which have to share, each gets a chapter – as do the introduction and conclusion. That said, the authors suggest that most of those conceptions can be grouped under two headings – “Finitarian” and “Cornucopian” – which mean just what their names suggest they do, that is: belief in “scarcity”, and belief in its absence.

And this is why I am unconvinced: at times they seem to be saying, like Humpty Dumpty, that a word can mean just what they choose it to mean. I’m not sure it can. It may well be the case that classical thinkers gave more thought to social order and harmony than to scarcity, but that doesn’t mean that those things meant scarcity or its absence. A hunter-gatherer may have seen the world as abundant – but that reflected his condition and perspective, not a natural world which really was infinite.  

Changing the meaning of words is a popular but frustrating debating tactic. For example, “poverty” is often interpreted to mean “unfree”, because if you have no resources then you can’t do much. But the two concepts are distinct, and to muddle them is ultimately to demean (literally?) both. Similarly, resources are either limited, or they aren’t.

The authors sometimes seem to think that an old idea is necessarily a good one. Their summary of the history of ideas contains many of the usual suspects. Those earlier thinkers all shared a certain privilege and intellectual monopoly power – who else got published then? – but they were not necessarily right or even useful.

We used to think the world itself is flat: it isn’t. Similarly, our predecessors may have had all sorts of ideas about various utopias and alternative modes of production, but so what? In several instances the authors describe earlier writers’ imagined alternative worlds in which desires are limited and valid, seemingly forgetting they were just that – imagined.

Ultimately, the authors themselves seem unconvinced too: they come down on the side of a conventional interpretation – their idea of “Planetary Scarcity” (self-explanatory). But because they focus – as do most economists, to be fair – on abstract demand (and they see consumption as a bad thing), they have nothing to say about whether an increasingly intangible product range may loosen our collective shackle. Nor do they say who is to choose what and how we produce if today’s mixed economy is not to be trusted with the job.