Why the economics of scarcity is missing the point.

“The fact is, there’s an economy of politics. There’s only so much time, so much enthusiasm, and so much energy.” – George Will

In this post, I’m starting off by doing two things I’m not happy about. I’ve already quoted George Will (really?), and now I’m going to cite a dictionary definition, from the World English Dictionary:

1. careful management of resources to avoid unnecessary expenditure or waste; thrift
2. a means or instance of this; saving
3. sparing, restrained, or efficient use, esp to achieve the maximum effect for the minimum effort: economy of language
[blah blah blah]
5. the management of the resources, finances, income, and expenditure of a community, business enterprise, etc
[blah blah blah]

I hate defining words. Denotation is boring. Connotion is fun. But dictionary definitions are a place to start, so there. I’ll live. Cliffs Notes has a tighter sociological definition, and I like it better: “The economy is a social system that produces, distributes, and consumes goods and services in a society.”

“The Economy” is about the only damned thing we’ve been hearing about the last few years, and it bears examination. Something has never felt quite right about the way the word is used in our culture, and I’ve been puzzling about how to put that in words for about 15 years.Thank you, George Will (really?), for giving me a kick in the right direction.

Let’s look at Cliffs Notes’ definition. “The economy is a social system that produces, distributes, and consumes goods and services in a society.” I call the economy “how we get the means of life to people.” Ok, Cliffs Notes is a bit more academic than mine, but I think they more or less say the same thing. People need stuff (good or services) to live, and we have to get the stuff to people somehow (produce and distribute), and then the people make use of (consume) the stuff. Yes, this is intended to be obtusely simple at this point. I’m trying to trace all the dots that are usually connected unconsciously, so it takes some point by point drudgery.

So far, this is simple. We somehow get stuff to people and they use it to live their lives. No statements about what kind of stuff we’re talking about, no implications about how much of it there is, just stuff getting to people.

Now, George Will steps in and messes things up. “[T]here’s an economy of politics. There’s only so much[.]” So far we’ve been talking about getting stuff to people so they can live — and then George Will introduces the idea that “economy” also implies “only so much”. Of course, this is such an obvious widespread assumption that my faux-naif framing falls flat. (Forgive the alliteration.) OF COURSE “economy” implies scarcity. Back to the dictionary definition: “careful management of resources to avoid unnecessary expenditure or waste; thrift.” Why is thrift necessary? Because of scarcity. “Unnecessary expenditure or waste” is only a problem in a context of scarcity.

Yes, yes, ‘economy implies scarcity’, so what’s my point? This is obviously a description of real conditions, right? There is only so much food, so many houses, so much wealth to go around, right?

Right? Maybe. But this scarcity focus misses the point.

Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m not going to make the obvious argument here, which is that there’s more than enough food, housing, and wealth to go around, but it’s a problem of distribution. Technical, political, and, of course, economic barriers prevent us from getting the means of life to the people who need it. That argument isn’t wrong, but it, I believe, also misses the point.

The point isn’t that our finite stuff isn’t as scarce as our distribution system makes it look, the point is that the way we produce the stuff of life imposes unnecessary and counterproductive limitations on its abundance.

A few weeks ago my good friend Clint shot my a text from New Zealand (this point may be lost in the argument I’m about to make, but I love technology) suggesting a blog topic: Permacuture (forgive the crunchiness in this link) as perpetual motion machine. Awesome idea, and one that had bubbled in the back of my mind for a while. His prompt brought it together for me in a way that had eluded me.

Buckminster Fuller (who I love love love) made the argument in his Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth to the effect that the only sane use of our stores of millions of years worth of composted sunlight is to convert our economy to real-time sunlight. The world, to the extent that it has taken his advice, has taken that to mean solar pv, wind (which is driven by solar radiation), solar hot water, and passive solar design. I have nothing against any of those. The last two in particular are hugely useful, and, given my aforementioned love of technology, I do want something to power my iPad. But a straight-swap of petroleum fueled technologies for solar electric power technologies isn’t much of a solution. We need to re-examine our economies in the context of the ecosystems that we desperately try to forget we’re a part of.

I’ll cut to the point. Plants are awesome. They grow if we get them what they need and stand back. The waste products of dead plants are the inputs of the next crop of very very alive plants. Most of what plants are is crystallized sunlight. The small proportion of plants that are made up of mineral can be recover by composing food scraps and what you might call “post-consumption waste recovery.” A bit of anything is lost in any exchange, certainly, but if there are any technical methods of producing food, building material, etc, than plant-based perennial systems with human management and the assistance of animals and microbes, I want to hear about it.

So, what would an economy look like in a permacultural society fully integrated into perennial plant-based productive systems, which produce greatly out of proportion to the labour put in? Or a localized economy that contains the bulk of its capital and expertise within a half-hour walk? Or an economy in which the only things that travel long distances are people, small non-perishable light weight luxuries, and ideas? I don’t know. I wish I did so I could save us all a lot of experimentation. But I have some ideas.

I believe this economy would place the most value on relationship. The ability to make relationships with others who have certain skills, expertise, or connections. The ability to see relationships in natural systems, and massage them to fulfill both our own purposes and those of the ecosystem. The ability to smooth, nurture, and create space for relationships between people, towns, societies, and cultures. The ability to feel and articulate our connectedness in ways that give us a greater sense of our own selves and our relationships to others, to natural forces, and to all of the universe.

This, I think, is the point that we tend to miss in talking about economies. If we produce our means of life differently, abundantly, in ways that strengthen rather than weakening natural systems, the current logic of our economies implodes. I’ll explore these ideas further as this blog matures. But for now… Doesn’t that sound more appealing than George Will’s vision?


  1. Clinton Zirk

    Hmm, that Clint guy sounds like a pretty smart cookie. Glad to see you back on the horse.

    Made me thing of the “Gin Surplus,” (I think) the only problem with switching to a better basis for the economy would be all our free time :)

    • Ryan

      Haha, yeah, it’s easy to make that assumption, but I’m sure we’ll think of something. :p Maybe everyone will have a part time research fellowship?

  2. Pingback: In Vino Veritas | Better Futures

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