The New Scarcity Studies: On Two New Socioeconomic Histories

By Scott R. MacKenzieSeptember 25, 2023

The New Scarcity Studies: On Two New Socioeconomic Histories

Scarcity: A History from the Origins of Capitalism to the Climate Crisis by Carl Wennerlind and Fredrik Albritton Jonsson
The Invention of Scarcity: Malthus and the Margins of History by Deborah Valenze

WATER FALLS FROM the sky, literally. It is the most abundant chemical compound on Earth, and yet many people buy it in plastic bottles. Nestlé and other corporations source water cheaply and add labels that depict something other than heavy-industry and fossil-fuel derivatives, as though you’re drinking straight from a pristine spring. By bottling this natural resource and selling it as a commodity, Nestlé creates a form of scarcity. Other forms of scarcity threaten about half of the world’s population, for whom water is not always available in bottles or any other usable form. The plastic-bottle version of scarcity is clearly a consequence of capitalist systems; the latter happens in spite of them, right?

Capitalist enterprise marshals productive power that could provide universal water sufficiency and just about any other necessity, but it doesn’t. On the other hand, capitalism generates so much that is consumable (for those in a position to consume) that choosing something often means giving up other things. Obviously, having too few resources to survive is very different from having too many ways to satisfy one’s desires—but what if they both result from the same fundamental mechanism? Societies like the United States, which have astounding total wealth, also have every kind of scarcity. There is never enough time or cash or space, and many of us do not have enough to get by. Housing, food security, medical care, employment, and Springsteen tickets are not sufficiently abundant to meet everyone’s requirements. Why is there not enough to go around?

Depending on whom you ask, generalized scarcity is either the way things have always been or a consequence of capitalism. Is nature reminding us that there are only so many resources available, or is modern industry actually enforcing scarcity? Are expanding populations exceeding carrying capacities, or do market systems thwart needs and desires? Mainstream economists tend to blame nature. “Economics,” according to British economist Lionel Robbins, “is the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.” This “conflict of choice,” he continues, is “one of the permanent characteristics of human existence.” Whatever we choose to expend our time and labor and money on, we have to give up on satisfying a bunch of other desires or needs. If you want to sell water in plastic bottles, you need to convince buyers that it is hard to get otherwise, or that it is rare and special. If you want to survive in arid conditions, you probably should not build a pool in your backyard. Economists say, “We didn’t create this problem; we just want to help you deal with it.”

An emerging field of thought has begun to focus on the scarcity mechanism and question its general acceptance among economic theorists. Traditional Marxists, for all their hostility to capitalism, have largely accepted that scarcity is natural and permanent; they believe that getting rid of capitalism will not eliminate scarcity. Participants in the new scarcity studies argue that capitalism is wholly responsible for the conditions of scarcity it is supposed to be relieving. Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins concluded that “[m]odern capitalist societies […] dedicate themselves to the proposition of scarcity.” By comparison, hunter-gatherer societies could be called affluent: they are not trapped in constant cycles of choice and deprivation. The assumption that “primitive” life is always a 24-7 struggle to keep starvation at bay is far from accurate. Hunter-gatherers often have far more leisure time than citizens of commercial “civilization.” The myth that noncapitalist life is—as Thomas Hobbes famously said—“solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” persists because it makes the endless hustle of our own lives seem like a better idea. Sahlins does not idealize hunter-gatherer lifeways; rather, he is confronting misapprehensions that sustain racist ways of thinking about what used to be called “the developing world.”

Scarcity studies is not yet an accredited academic field with institutes and departments named for it­, but a recent surge of scholarship that includes two new books by historians suggests that this institutionalization may be imminent. Fredrik Albritton Jonsson and Carl Wennerlind’s Scarcity: A History from the Origins of Capitalism to the Climate Crisis and Deborah Valenze’s The Invention of Scarcity: Malthus and the Margins of History offer distinct but not incompatible accounts of how we got ourselves into this predicament. Jonsson and Wennerlind take an ambitious, sweeping approach: their book covers 500 years, dividing generalized scarcity into seven subcategories and proposing that we reduce the influence of scarcity-based economics on how we deal with our planetary crises. Their critique is unequivocal: “[T]he actual conditions of modern capitalism do not look much like the models employed in modern economic theory.”

Valenze focuses on one of the most important early contributors to scarcity theory—the Reverend Thomas R. Malthus, whose Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798 and then expanded through multiple later editions, shaped ideas about organic life and subsistence with profound and enduring success. An Essay claims that scarcity is a law of nature based on two permanent conditions: “First, that food is necessary to the existence of man. Secondly, that the passion between the sexes is necessary.” The problem, according to Malthus, is that sexual desire drives reproduction faster than food production can keep up. Scarcity, in other words, is built into human existence. Societies inevitably outgrow their own resources, and nature will take measures to correct our promiscuity. Vices, such as prostitution and depravity, take out those on the margins, followed by pestilence and plague, and “[s]hould success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow, levels the population with the food of the world.” It’s rough out there.

Valenze quotes at length—twice, in fact—a famous passage from the 1803 edition of the Essay that spins out a metaphor of “nature’s mighty feast” to which a pauper seeks admission. Nature “tells him to be gone,” but if he persuades other guests to make a place for him, “other intruders immediately appear demanding the same favour. […] [T]he plenty that before reigned is changed into scarcity; and the happiness of the guests is destroyed by the spectacle of misery and dependence.” Malthus rejects welfare provision and levels almost all of his condemnation at the poor for reproducing imprudently and crowding the table. His implacable logic found favor with British policymakers into the 1830s, when the ruthless “New Poor Law” act enshrined it. The influence of the nature’s feast parable remains widespread today. Anti-immigrant racism, for example, takes it as gospel.

Studies based on observation and field data have found overwhelmingly that Malthus’s thesis is not borne out in practice. Populations have rarely been found to outpace the food systems that support them. Famines have occurred in the two centuries since the Essay, but they have not justified its principles. The Irish famine of the 1840s had no relationship to population growth. In fact, it was terribly exacerbated by the influence of Malthus on governmental responses. Other mass-starvation events have likewise been found to arise for reasons that Malthusian theory cannot explain. And yet, as Valenze observes, “‘Malthus’s zombie’ continues to stalk our efforts to think about food and justice.”

The mischiefs of Zombie Malthus include fear of immigration, austerity policies in social welfare, and other naive, exclusionary ideas like replacement theory and defunding “low-value” college majors. Valenze points out that some environmentalists have sustained the assumption that pollution and resource depletion are directly related to overpopulation. Environmental damage, overintensive extraction, and accumulation of greenhouse gases are not explained by population growth; rather, they result from methods of production and distribution that serve the dominion of the fossil fuel industry and the concentration of wealth.

Anxiety about population in Africa, spurred by World Bank reports from the 1980s and ’90s, has raised a particularly nasty Zombie Malthus. African nations have neither the density of population nor the industrial scale of many other nations, yet the continent has been cast in many representations as an example of Malthusian devastation. In truth, Africa’s trials have much more to do with ongoing neocolonial exploitation than with any surplus of population. Economic development projects informed by Malthusian thought have helped to justify widespread dispossession of Indigenous peoples and the imposition of new food systems that have upended traditional lifeways, often with catastrophic effects. Consider that several of the nations most affected by Russian interference with Ukraine’s grain exports are in Africa.

The transformations that have left some African nations dependent on grain imports have their roots in 18th-century theories about agriculture that Malthus adopted. Valenze reveals how much his thought focused on grain, especially wheat, as the essential product. By ignoring other kinds of food production and basing his entire analysis on wheat production and pricing, Malthus played on anxieties about grain shortages that had occurred repeatedly through the 1790s. More importantly, he established a massively powerful set of assumptions about how agriculture works and its relation to the society it serves. Ways of acquiring food that were not based in grain cropping were written off as primitive, inefficient, and incapable of supplying urbanizing populations.

King Wheat demanded particular arrangements in land ownership, demographics, labor practices, commodity distribution, and food standards. Its status as the primary food commodity helped to make market-exchange systems dominant throughout British life. That is because wheat can only become food after harvesting, processing, and distribution, which are commercial operations. One cannot easily grow a wheat crop to supply one’s own daily bread, so to speak. In a 1793–94 poem, William Wordsworth described a traveler on Salisbury Plain, surrounded by grain fields “that stretched without a bound,” who nevertheless faints with hunger.

When subsistence becomes a question of buying power, it becomes possible to believe (as Malthus did) that if someone cannot earn a livelihood, they have “no claim of right to the smallest portion of food.” Earning comes first and survival depends upon it. Other ways of getting by in rural Britain—and Valenze shows there were many—get pushed to the background. The long process of enclosure took common lands where livestock could graze and converted them into private property for crop growing or other purposes that did not include traditional subsistence. Thus, wheat became a potent instrument of social control.

There is at least one other profound legacy from Malthusian thought. In On the Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin declared that the “struggle for existence” is “the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms.” In his notebooks, Darwin sketched an illustrative analogy that echoes Malthus’s parable of “nature’s mighty feast.” “One may say there is,” he wrote, “a force like a hundred thousand wedges trying [to] force every kind of adapted structure into the gaps in the economy of nature, or rather forming gaps by thrusting out weaker ones.” That force is generalized scarcity. Just like Malthus, Darwin sees no vacant seats at nature’s table.

Jonsson and Wennerlind discuss Darwin, Malthus, and Marx extensively in their ambitious volume. They build a list of scarcities that can seem dizzying, including “Socialist Scarcity,” which would arise if “genuine human needs were placed at the center of economic considerations and technology was mobilized in the service of all of humanity.” They are meticulous about defining every form of scarcity and linking them together historically. Through a wide variety of economic approaches, the central concept of scarcity has endured: production and distribution must confront the inevitable tendency of human consumption to outrun resources.

They also subdivide what they call Cornucopian from Finitarian views. Adherents to the former insist that progress, growth, intensification, resource acquisition, and other expansive consequences of capitalism are endlessly sustainable. Finitarians do not. Despite its faith in the eternal wellspring of capitalism, though, Cornucopianism is still a mode of scarcity. Even if we can produce our way out of any particular shortfall, personal consumption remains limited by wealth, time, and various laws of nature. Because our personal means are limited, we have to choose how we allocate our resources and which other possible satisfactions we will give up. Sahlins says that “every acquisition is simultaneously a deprivation, for every purchase of something is a foregoing of something else […] The point is that if you buy one automobile, say a Plymouth, you cannot also have the Ford.”

Economists call that kind of loss opportunity cost. But as long as we’re only talking about consumer desires, who cares? The problem is that economics has dissolved the distinction between needs and mere wants. Everything is about exchange, just as Malthus liked it. A commentator on the plight of Irish laborers during the Great Famine pointed out how coercive this routine can be: “The poor creatures have still the alternative of walking ten Irish miles every morning to their work, or else lie down and die.”

For Jonsson and Wennerlind—and for many scholars—scarcity is about desire versus resources: “because human desire for consumption is assumed to be insatiable and nature is by definition finite, economists reason that all humans and firms are forced to make tradeoffs to maximize their happiness and profits.” Capitalism gives us efficiency, not sufficiency. Cornucopians fixate on the infinitude of desire and place their faith in innovation as a path to endless satiation. They see capitalist enterprise as a large-scale version of the replicator device, which Star Trek fans first encountered on the starship Enterprise.

Finitarians, on the other hand, do not believe that everything can continue being made out of whatever, forever. Even so, conventional economists of the Finitarian persuasion have largely remained committed to the rules of scarcity, which means we need growth. Their strategy has been to extend economics into the realm of nature, envisioning trade and pricing models for just about everything: the atmosphere, oceans, and land, along with all the organisms and substances that dwell in them. Commodifying everything, they argue, enables us to plan our exploitation of nature so as not to exhaust it. To date, that approach has mostly yielded trade-offs that do little to slow the pace of resource depletion. The interests of forest dwellers tend to get outbargained by those of forest fellers.

The paradox of abundance is another insidious part of scarcity’s reign. As Marx and Engels archly observed, abundance can trigger “an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity—the epidemic of over-production.” According to The Communist Manifesto, this epidemic “appears as if a famine […] had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce.” The 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression followed a period of massive expansion. When commodities become more abundant than demand requires, capitalist markets tend to get even more unhinged than they do when there is not enough to meet demand.

The abundance paradox is why prices rise when supplies falter, and why monetary policy is adjusted to dampen thriving economies. Although its defenders have long insisted that capitalism is the only means by which humanity can achieve plenty, those who manage capitalist systems do whatever they can to stave off full employment, high wages, and universal welfare. The struggle for existence is real, or rather compulsory. Under capitalism, abundance is not the solution to scarcity—it’s a key part of the scarcity mechanism.

When economists weigh in on the climate crisis, they tend to say things like “carbon abundance—rather than oil scarcity—is emerging as the critical constraint.” But to say carbon is abundant tells us nothing about how much we are producing. Abundance simply means any amount greater than sufficiency. It also does not distinguish carbon from abundant environmental chemicals that have no connection to climate change. The scarce-oil/abundant-carbon formula also keeps fossil-fuel industries at the bargaining table as we try to negotiate the climate crisis. Jonsson and Wennerlind point out that economists have a lot of sway in policy circles, and those economists keep promoting the hoax that market forces like “changed patterns of demand and technological innovation will go a long way toward solving any environmental problems.”

Scarcity economics keeps us thinking in terms of trade-offs and cost-benefit analyses. It also keeps us thinking in terms of wholes (climate change is happening to the entire planet), which means regional variations and inequities get overlooked. The same principle, Jonsson and Wennerlind point out when discussing the work of Cambridge economist Partha Dasgupta, applies to the “use of GDP to judge economic performance.” It can make a nation look economically robust even if many parts of the nation are not doing well at all. This way of thinking means that we perceive redressing inequalities and injustices as a cost that affects everyone, not just those who need redress. Helping impoverished people and climate refugees means allocating resources from somewhere else, and “somewhere else” usually makes a stronger case for keeping those resources to itself. Austerity policies are brought to you by this logic.

Scarcity also operates at smaller scales. All it needs is a system that can be isolated. The budget of every college department works this way: it sets up limits that force you to wrestle your immediate colleagues for any available scraps, even if the institution for which you work has vast resources. As long as those extra resources are not part of your budget, your sphere of scarcity is all you have to work with. Budgets are miniaturized versions of nature’s great feast, or border walls. They are not designed to leave unoccupied seats at the table.

Jonsson and Wennerlind finish with a strong account of the obstacles that scarcity puts in the way of planning for a less catastrophic future. They assert the value of tracing historical origins and considering alternative versions of nature, society, and development. Extricating scarcity from our sciences and our way of seeing the world “will require a profound psychological shift across the planet.” It is a wildly ambitious project. The rhizomatic tendrils of scarcity have invaded just about every aspect of modern life—but entrenched ideologies can be rooted out. We are learning to think about sex and gender without the strict determinations of biology or “nature,” so maybe killing off Malthus’s Zombie, ending the tyranny of markets, and rescuing welfare from its suffocating contradictions is not impossible. The end of generalized scarcity does not necessarily mean the end of economics, but maybe economics can make room for other ways of running things. Maybe sufficiency can replace efficiency as the goal of social life.


Scott R. MacKenzie is an associate professor of English at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of Be It Ever So Humble: Poverty, Fiction, and the Invention of the Middle-Class Home (2013) and numerous articles. He is completing a study titled Poetics of Scarcity.

LARB Contributor

Scott R. MacKenzie is an associate professor of English at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of Be It Ever So Humble: Poverty, Fiction, and the Invention of the Middle-Class Home (2013) and numerous articles. He is completing a study titled Poetics of Scarcity.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!