The Myth of Scarcity 1

The Myth of Scarcity 1

Yesterday we introduced the seven Major Myths that beset Conservatism.

Today, we begin our study of the first of them, the Myth of Scarcity.

The Myth of Scarcity goes something like this: We need to fear running out of resources, and we need to fear other people, who will harm or kill us in order to steal our resources.

This Myth, perhaps the most primal of the Major Myths, is obviously all about fear.

Fear is the slave-making emotion. As soon as you let fear take hold, you give someone or  something dominion over you. You begin to react to the demands of the fear instead of making free choices. For instance, if you believe that there is a shortage of food coming, fear can well cause you to begin hoarding supplies immediately, instead of investigating whether there really is a famine on the horizon and, if so, whether hoarding is really the best way to deal with it. Fear drives you to do things that may not be necessary or even rational. Myths based on fear need to be scrutinized closely if we want to be free of their dominion.

Since this Myth breaks down into two parts—fear of shortages and fear of people—we need to consider each separately.

First, shortages. Do we really need to fear scarcity? If we look at the things that people most fear losing, it would seem that we don’t need to worry much about scarcity. Is there really a scarcity of food? Or a scarcity of water? Or a scarcity of land, energy, or money? Today, let’s just look at scarcity of food, water, and land.

Food is not scarce

There is no scarcity of food. The World Hunger Education Service reports that in 2011 the combined agricultural product of the planet created enough food to provide everyone on earth with 2720 calories per day—more than enough nutrition for the average adult. This per capita production is seventeen per cent greater now than it was in 1971, even though world population has increased seventy per cent in the intervening thirty years.⁠ (See this report on the facts about hunger.) The world is doing a fantastic job of keeping food production ahead of population growth.

But if there is no shortage of food, then why are so many people around the globe suffering from hunger and malnutrition?

This suffering is not caused by a scarcity of food, but by the way the world distributes food. Because food is sold for profit, those without money cannot afford access to food. The primary cause of hunger is poverty.⁠ (Tatyana P. Soubbotina, Beyond Economic Growth: An Introduction to Sustainable Development, 2nd ed. [New York: The World Bank, 2004], 40. This resource is available here.) A secondary cause is that the world refuses to develop distribution systems that will move excess food from one place to another place where it is needed. About one third of the food produced for human consumption is wasted every year instead of being channeled to those who need it.⁠ (Jenny Gustavson, Christel Cederberg, Ulf  Sonesson, Robert van Otterdijk, and Alexandre Meybeck, Global Food Losses and Food Waste [Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2011], 4.) Now a world that can manage on-time delivery of auto parts to manufacturers could certainly devise a system of food distribution. It hasn’t happened because there is no profit in it, not because it’s impossible.

Water is not scarce

Water is not scarce. It is true, however, that the world is headed for a major water crisis if humans continue using and wasting water at current rates. But the two statements are not incompatible.

The World Resources Institute projects that by 2025, forty-eight percent of the world’s population will live in water-stressed river basins.⁠ (See the report “Will There Be Enough Water?” ) Almost half of the world’s people will be having trouble getting enough water to support the normal activities of life.

But this projection assumes that the world will continue to treat water as carelessly as we do today. There is no necessity to stay on this path. In fact, the same report just mentioned provides many recommendations for changing the trajectory of our water future. New discoveries in water technology, new scientific research on the proper use of water for agriculture, and new management regimes that shift water resources to where they are most productive could change all the projections.

It seems likely that water will be more expensive. But we simply must move to new system in which all the costs are weighed, including the costs to the future. Eventually we will begin to adjust to the higher costs, as they become just the way business is done.

It is clear, however, that there would be no threat of water scarcity if humans didn’t waste it so profligately.

Land is not scarce

In 1974, the biologist Francis P. Felice showed that everyone on earth could be moved to roomy American houses in an area the size Texas, at a population density about that of most major cities. World population has increased since then, but recalculating for contemporary numbers shows that the entire world could still live in an area the size of Texas: each family could easily inhabit a home of approximately 1500 square feet.⁠ (See Jacqueline Kasun, The War Against Population: The Economics and Ideology of World Population [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999], 45.)

One reason why people consider land to be a scarce commodity is historical. It used to take lots of land to raise crops and livestock, and before the modern system of commerce, finance, and banking came along, wealth was measured in quantity of land owned. But land long ago stopped being the measure of wealth. Yet many rich people, most of whom derive none of their wealth from land, still regard “owning” large real estate holdings as an indicator of their affluence. The less desirable plots of land they leave for the rest of us leads to the notion that land is scarce.

In addition, the corporate use of land resources for private profit further reduces the availability of land. By holding huge plots for the grazing of cheap cattle, for example, the beef-growing industry has devastated immense tracts of the South American rain forest, stripping them of vegetation. No one else can make use of that land for any purpose, because it is “owned” by a corporation.

Again, as we saw with water, nothing is to be feared from a scarcity of the underlying resource. Land is plentiful, and it can support many uses at the same time. But allowing wealthy individuals or a single-purpose corporation monopolize the land for one purpose can lead to shortages. Once again, it is human imprudence that brings about scarcity. If we would use the resources wisely, there would be no need to fear losing them.

So it looks like there is no real reason to worry that food, water, or land are scarce commodities. Thus there is no real reason to fear that we will suffer for lack of them.

In the next installment, we'll look at scarcity of energy and money.

Until Monday, then.

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