Scarcity Amidst Abundance

We live in the midst of a grand contradiction. The earth is brimming with everything the human race needs. Yet those who have too much of everything think they don’t have enough. We live in a culture that takes abundance and turns it into scarcity. Actually, I discussed scarcity before in an earlier post.

Look at the abundance. In the “developed” world, GDP rose 30 times more than population from 1950 to 2000. Well, a lot of people were pretty comfortable in 1950. Since then, we’ve been rolling in affluence 30 times over. Yet society tells at us relentlessly that everything is scarce and we have to compete for it harder and harder every day.

How can there be scarcity when we have so much? Economists have a narrative for that: “The world is finite. Human wants are unlimited. There can never be enough to catch up with the human imagination. It’s human nature never to be satisfied and strive for more, just as it’s human nature to compete for a bigger slice of the pie. Such as life. Get over it. Now let’s organize it by studying Economics.”

I’ve disputed this jaded view of human nature, the rank exploitation it justifies, the fanatical individualism it normalizes and the rape of the earth it celebrates — elsewhere. Here I want to address the underlying issue.

It goes back to an earlier century and to an intellectual movement that wanted to escape the clutches of God. We foolishly call it The Enlightenment nowadays. That’s when many philosophers were becoming intoxicated with the power of science and logic to explain and change the world — confident that there was nothing they couldn’t figure out, given a little more time.

Their new universe was the material natural world. Anything that is not part of the natural world is simply unreal, not worthy of consideration. In this view, everything fits into the natural world they were learning how to control — even God.

What they didn’t realize they were doing — or did realize but didn’t care — was turning philosophy on its head. They were trashing the old comprehensive understanding of the universe, in all its layers and complexities and dimensions, by stripping it down to only what their crude instruments could measure.

That is, they blithely assumed that everything there is — everything seen and unseen — all exist on one single plane. People, rocks, flowers, toothpicks and God are all on the same plane called the natural world. Guess what that does? It makes me equal to God. If that seems too absurd to believe, then scratch God from the picture. “I have no need of that hypothesis”. (Pascal)

What’s the baby they were throwing out with the bathwater? It was the venerable grand image of a universe that’s ordered in more dimensions than we can possibly imagine. This universe is alive, and life is breathed into it by a God at the top who pulls it all together and ultimately untangles all conflict into a final reconciliation of love and harmony. This gave moral purpose to our lives — each to play our role in that greater reconciliation.

What did the science junkies do with that? Having flattened creation down to those three little dimensions called the natural world, where no higher purpose is acknowledged — where moral order is a myth — then there’s nothing left for us but the finite earth we live on and the appetites we can’t control — scarcity. And there’s nothing left for us to do but scramble for all the goodies we can get. However we give that a more catchy name — competition.

My basic perspective here arises from a fairly modern intellectual tradition out of the Church of England called Radical Orthodoxy. It suggests that The Enlightenment was a perverse historical turn which has taken over the world, and it needs to be replaced by an entirely new yet ancient paradigm drawn from the Christian insight.

Radical Orthodoxy goes on to refine the meaning of scarcity in the following manner — it fails to account for wants vs needs.

Mainstream economists don’t distinguish wants from needs. Worse, they don’t acknowledge needs at all. There are only wants — preferences. “If you want to talk about needs, go to the Psychology department down the hall. Don’t bother us with it.”

As a result, economists see only one kind of scarcity — you can’t have as much as you want. But there are two kinds of scarcity. The other kind of scarcity is when you can’t get as much as you need to live in dignity. Scarcity in relation to needs is an entirely different narrative. Wants are wild and undiscipined and rooted in longing. Needs are that down-to-earth baseline of things required for human functioning. That’s not infinite like wants. The Earth can support it for everyone, in abundance. It could do that a hundred years ago.

Economists won’t touch that. It ruins their theories. Only preferences can be modeled in calculus.

If our priority were to satisfy peoples’ needs, then we have the resources to do it. Then why don’t we? Because our priority is diverted to satisfying peoples’ wants, and that’s sucking up all the resources that should go to meeting everyone’s needs.

Would it were only that. Good old capitalism requires escalating scarcity to remain stable. For that, wants must outstrip resources at an increasing rate. For that, GDP must grow. For that, a growing obsession to consume must be cultivated and maintained. But the marketing industry has been up to the task, and consumer culture has taken its addiction to commodities to new levels our ancestors could scarcely imagine. The problem is solved as long as there’s no limit to how much more consumption junkies can demand of the earth. Or is it?

Then why not just revert to socialism? Not so fast, say the Radical Orthodoxy types. Pure utopian socialism and pure utopian capitalism both produce ideal results in theory, but they are never achieved in practice — not even close. In the real world, we all live in a hybrid of capitalism and socialism — and we always will. It’s only a matter of which way the balance will tilt — a little more to the left or a little more to the right. There’s no guarantee that an economy that tilts to the left will renounce consumer culture and ensure that all needs will be meet before any wants are indulged — any more than one that tilts to the right. That requires a greater cultural revolution than left-right politics will ever produce.

Is politics then a lost cause? The early Christians did not seek to change the institutions of their time. Christ said “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” to suggest that we cannot pursue humility and redemption in a system dedicated to pursuing wealth and power. The early Christians sought instead to build a counter-culture based on love and compassion and radical transformation. There lies the real cultural revolution.

In other words, the politics of the early Christian movement was a politics of community, built from the ground up rather than imposed by government. It was rooted in Christ’s lifestyle of renouncing possessions and taking only what is needed to serve others. In such a community, God’s abundance was indeed sufficient and artificial scarcity was an aberration still in its very infancy in the larger profane society.

In the modern age, is it sufficient just to build community? The Mafia is a community, but one built on perverse principles. True community in the Christian vision is built on a specific set of principles — centered on loving one’s neighbour, following one’s calling, and living a life transformed by the cross. This is the context that turns artificial scarcity into God’s full abundance, as followers renounce unnecessary consumption in favour of living the Christian mission with what God is already providing.

And where is this lifestyle going to come from if not from the church? That’s not to say we should abandon the separation of church and state. The state is not an appropriate vehicle for leading any sort of cultural revolution, as evidenced by China. It needs to be rooted first of all in a genuine moral revolution. And the church is the only place that has a radical counter-paradigm that can truly challenge the wrong turn that The Enlightenment took two centuries ago. That’s why Radical Orthodoxy claims that orthodoxy is at the heart of genuine radicalism. Wrap your head around that seeming contradiction.