Is the World Enough?

Is our relation to the earth mainly a story of scarcity, of insatiable wants curbed by a finite planet?

It was 1968, and the “battle to feed all of humanity” had already been lost. In the coming 1970s, soaring populations and finite global resources would lead hundreds of millions of people to starve to death. Or so prophesized Paul and Anne Ehrlich in their book The Population Bomb. Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford entomologist, gained unlikely fame as an outrider of the apocalypse. He went on Johnny Carson and declared that “the end” was near.

But, notoriously, the Ehrlichs were wrong. They had predicted that vast swathes of humanity would die, yet by 1990, the human population had added some 1.5 billion people. Moreover, famines became much rarer, malnutrition decreased, and living standards rose across the industrializing world. To top it off, the Ehrlichs’ prognostications of scarcity came with generous servings of first-world environmentalist racism (he suggested food aid to India was pointless). They even inspired, from Mexico to Bangladesh, horrific campaigns of coerced sterilizations. As such, Ehrlich has become a byword for one of environmentalism’s most shortsighted—and morally bankrupt—impulses.

Yet one might also say, in hindsight, that the Ehrlichs were only wrong about which species would starve. In the second half of the 20th century, global human famine was averted by the Green Revolution’s formula of high-yield, semi-dwarf cereal varieties, synthetic fertilizers, chemical pesticides, monocrop agriculture, and intensified irrigation. These advances helped save perhaps two billion lives, yet the planet is strewn with the costs of this miracle. What The Population Bomb failed to predict was that we would largely survive by starving and poisoning countless species and ecosystems to the point of collapse.

The Green Revolution’s pesticides and habitat destruction are the main drivers of a mass die-off of insects at the astounding rate of 2.5 percent per year, a harbinger of death for the birds, fish, amphibians, and mammals that rely on them. The release of carbon into the atmosphere—perhaps a third of which comes from agriculture and deforestation—has raised global temperatures by 0.15 to 0.20 degrees Celsius every decade since 1975. It has also rendered the oceans 26 percent more acidic than they were in the Holocene. As a result, coral reefs, which nurture one in four marine species, are collapsing. About a fifth of the Amazon rainforest, one of the most biodiverse habitats on earth, has been clear cut, mostly to raise beef.

Today, eco-leftists know that population itself does not drive climate change. Rather, the problem is the ravenous consumption fueled by the Global North’s vision of the capitalist good life: with suburban Versailles, trips to Bali, and hot tubs, an airmailed salmon in every pan and two SUVs in every garage. Contemporary “degrowth” advocates are, thankfully, more ethically attuned than the environmentalists of the sixties like the Ehrlichs: they call not for single-child policies, but, rather, for a dialing back of economic development in rich countries and a redistribution of resources to the Global South.

But the debate between eco-pessimists and techno-optimists remains structured around an abiding question: Is our relation to the earth mainly a story of scarcity, of insatiable wants curbed by a finite planet? Or is it about humanity’s marvelous aptitude for discovering new ways to extract fresh abundance from finite resources?

To a sobering extent, this argument has been dominated by invocations of its most disreputable participants. Muse loudly enough about planetary limits and someone will likely call you an “Ehrlichian,” as a friend who works in biotech once half-jokingly labeled me. (The mockery was esoteric, but because I, like many of my generation, spend a fair amount of time doomscrolling through the annals of climate catastrophe, I knew enough to take offense.) To fall on the side of scarcity, then, exposes one to allegations of underinformed naysaying or even “neo-Malthusian” callousness, after the English cleric and demographer who railed against poor relief around the turn of the 19th century.

In other words, to worry about human limits is to find oneself thrust into truly awful company.


“Overpopulation” Is Not the Problem

By Banu Subramaniam

That’s why Fredrik Albritton Jonsson and Carl Wennerlind’s new intellectual history Scarcity: A History from the Origins of Capitalism to the Climate Crisis is so welcome.

They uncover how the question of scarcity has a much more varied, interesting, and ethically appealing history than techno-optimists’ kneejerk references to Malthus and Ehrlich would suggest. Beyond curmudgeonly clergymen and false eco-prophets of doom, their cast of thinkers underscores how the mismatch of needs, wants, and resources has long been an animating problem in Western thought, from Enlightenment philosophes and marginalist economists to utopian socialists and romantic poets.

For example: An end to growth was the horror of 18th-century thinkers like Adam Smith and David Hume just as it would horrify a sitting US president or CEO. This is perhaps not so surprising. More striking is how Albritton Jonsson and Wennerlind recast John Stuart Mill, a lion of classical imperial liberalism, as an unlikely forerunner of contemporary critics of growth-dependent economics.

In contrast to 18th- and 19th-century economists before him, Mill peered into the future and decided that a time must come in which every country should stop reinvesting its profits in new money-making ventures and instead embrace the “stationary state,” an era of sufficiency, rather than further efficiency. He confessed that, once reasonable wants were met, he saw little “charm” in the life of “trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels” to which workers in growth-oriented capitalist societies are condemned.

Even more striking, Mill worried about more than the horrific human costs of 19th-century industrialization. Endless growth, he recognized, would mean an ever-encroaching frontier between civilization and the nonhuman world. He conjured up a ghastly vision of earth upon which

nothing [was] left to the spontaneous activity of nature; with every rood of land brought into cultivation, which is capable of growing food for human beings; every flowery waste or natural pasture ploughed up, all quadrupeds or birds which are not domesticated for man’s use exterminated as his rivals for food, every hedgerow or superfluous tree rooted out, and scarcely a place left where a wild shrub or flower could grow without being eradicated as a weed in the name of improved agriculture.

This remains an astounding prophecy (not only because of the writer). Proponents of abundance across the political spectrum insist that economic growth can be “decoupled” from unsustainable environmental damage (most urgently, but not exclusively, the pumping of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere). On the center-right, boosters such as Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, authors of Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think, insist that so long as “DIY innovators” are free and secure in their intellectual property, all our problems will be solved. On the left, Aaron Bastani’s 2019 manifesto Fully Automated Luxury Communism predicts that lab-grown meat, gene editing, asteroid mining, and renewable energy can bequeath a society in which all of us “will see more of the world than ever before, eat varieties of food we have never heard of, and lead lives equivalent—if we so wish—to those of today’s billionaires.”

I’m far more sympathetic to Bastani’s post-scarcity vision than to Diamandis and Kotler’s. Still, if Bastani really thinks we’ll extract lithium and nickel from asteroids before we’ve torn through every rood of land (as Mill might say) containing those metals on our own planet, well, I fear he’s got his head in the clouds. If an epoch of luxury communism for humanity comes, odds are the golden lion tamarin, the pygmy three-toed sloth, and the polar bear will see it only from behind a zoo’s bars.

Still, whether bedaubed in capitalist or communist hues, a horizon of endless abundance is nothing if not captivating. Have theorists of human limits offered anything to compete with it?

To a truly surprising extent, “Scarcity” offers a sweeping view of human neediness as seen from the high table of plenty.

The premise of Albritton Jonsson and Wennerlind’s book is that contemporary economic life is dominated by what they call “Neoclassical Scarcity” (an idea originating with 19th-century economists William Stanley Jevons, Carl Menger, and Léon Walras). This is an orthodox economic model, in which scarcity of goods leads to high prices, which spurs innovation to find new resources, substitutes, or production methods, which brings prices down. Paradoxically, then, the scarcity concept at the heart of modern economics is also—allegedly—the motor of material abundance.

Such neoclassical economics ushered in a faith in market equilibriums: the market’s ability to efficiently allocate goods according to demand. But, more fundamentally, it signaled the ascendance of a particular view of human nature: it “assumed that people had an insatiable desire, not for any specific good, but for consumption in general.”

It is this assumption of consumerist scarcity that Albritton Jonsson and Wennerlind want to denaturalize. While such an idea has, today, been enthroned as a nearly indisputable fact, Albritton Jonsson and Wennerlind reveal how it emerged out of peculiar cultural conditions: the explosion of 19th-century consumer culture, bourgeois anxieties about labor unrest, and a particular view of the natural world as a mere “stock” to be exploited.

These conditions and assumptions were the products of a particular intellectual and historical crossroads, the authors remind us. As such, they need not guide our future.

If you want to dethrone a concept, give it a humble or embarrassing genealogy. For Albritton Jonsson and Wennerlind, neoclassical scarcity originates from a tradition of “Cornucopian” thought, which emerged among a colorful group of 17th-century alchemists, speculators, millenarian Christians, and philosophers.

For these early modern techno-optimists, nature was not the scanty, even harsh, provider it had long been viewed as. Rather, in the words of Samuel Hartlib, it “hath in its bowels an (even almost) infinite, and inexhaustible treasure” only waiting to be unearthed through the improvement of land and scientific experimentation. Some of these thinkers applied a violently patriarchal model to the task of land improvement and scientific discovery. For Francis Bacon, the “secrets of nature” were a feminine jewel to be wrested by the male scientist who must “conquer and subdue her [nature], to shake her to her foundations.” Others emphasized harmony and alchemical balance. But for all of these writers, the improvement of superabundant nature meant one thing: “If the natural world was infinitely improvable, it followed that the need to limit desires was no longer pressing.” Humanity could finally slough off the ancient virtues of moderation and restraint.

This belief in natural replenishment and abundance was exemplified by the 17th-century doctor and speculator Nicholas Barbon, who happily observed that “Beasts of the earth, Fowls of the Air, and Fishes of the Sea, Naturally Increase. … And the Minerals of the Earth are Unexhaustible.” It’s not hard to draw a line between Barbon’s 1690 A Discourse on Trade and contemporary paeans to capitalist flourishing. In their 2012 book Abundance, Diamandis and Kotler know better than to call minerals “unexhaustible.” Still, they blithely declare that “technology is a resource-liberating mechanism. It can make the once scarce now abundant.” In this rhetoric, resources—meaning everything from honeybees to bauxite—just want to be free so they can serve us.

The point for the contemporary apostles of Abundance, as it was for Barbon in the 17th century, is that any gospel trying to curb materialist desire, even among the rich, is both painful and unnecessary, a hairshirt for a world with nothing to repent. Even worse, to restrain desire would remove the incentive for humanity to tinker in workshops and laboratories to find new ways of unlocking natural resources. Learning to restrain desires in order to live within a finite, God-given world was once the aim of what Albritton Jonsson and Wennerlind call “Neo-Aristotelian Scarcity,” a conservative view of natural limits that emphasized hierarchy, prudence, a Christian distaste for greed and gluttony, and a disapproval for using money to make more money. With the early modern Cornucopians, a new vision of ever-increasing riches—what we now know as 2 percent year-on-year GDP growth—had been unleashed upon the world.

If that conservative vision were the only example of what Albritton Jonsson and Wennerlind call “Finitarian” thinking (yes, the terms do pile up), the older way of life that embraced natural limitations would hardly be worth mourning. But other examples soon emerge, this time from the other side of the political spectrum. In the 17th century, improvers, alchemists, and privatizers remade Europe in their image, stealing land from peasants and speculating on slave-trading joint-stock companies. In response, new critiques of abundance emerged, which saw salvation not in humanity’s ability to meet boundless desires but rather in reforming society to distribute land, labor, and resources more fairly.

Here, Scarcity starts to tread more familiar ground. Even so, the thinkers it discusses—Gerrard Winstanley, spokesman of the agrarian radicals known as the Diggers; Jonathan Swift; William and Dorothy Wordsworth; John Clare; Robert Owen; Charles Fourier; John Ruskin—come into fresh focus as interlocutors on the puzzle of how increasing wealth also meant growing scarcity for many.

For example, Albritton Jonsson and Wennerlind show that “enclosure” was intimately tied up in the new Cornucopian ethos: to generate more wealth and improve yields, it was found expedient to trample over peasants’ centuries-old common use rights to land. The material scarcity that enclosure thrust upon the dispossessed pinched their stomachs and coerced them into wage labor. In addition to these physical hardships, Albritton Jonsson and Wennerlind point, like J. M. Neeson in her classic Commoners, to spiritual losses. “A multifaceted landscape rich in material uses and social meaning,” they write, “had been denuded and simplified to make way for widespread improvement.”

What arose in response was a forerunner of contemporary environmentalist attempts to measure “improvement,” such as habitat destruction or the turn to monoculture farming, in terms beyond economic and agronomic impact. Take the early 19th-century “peasant poet” John Clare. Following recent ecocritical scholarship, Albritton Jonsson and Wennerlind argue that Clare did not simply record how economic development and agricultural intensification harmed humans. Rather, they show how he recorded the toll these changes took also on the natural world: the moles “hung for traitors” by Buonaparte-like despotic farmers, the “injur’d fields” fenced in by rapacious aristocrats, the helpless trees to which “the uplifted axe no mercy yields.” It was precisely these ecological injuries, as Clare terms them, that neoclassical economics dismissed as, at most, externalities whose cost could be rendered fungible—or measured in money—and mitigated through taxation tweaks. Any reduction of such assaults to mere money runs headlong into Clare’s vision of mutilated moles and merciless axes.

Such a vision also counters the boosters of abundance on the left. In 1813, Robert Owen’s A New View of Society similarly promised—like Bastani’s asteroids—that, soon, “riches may be created in such abundance and so advantageously for all, that the wants and desire of every human being may be over-satisfied.” Even Marx’s writings, Albritton Jonsson and Wennerlind argue, likewise evince the stamp of a “Cornucopian faith in the power of science and technology to master the natural world.” (Recently, this characterization has been complicated by Kohei Saito’s exploration of Marx’s late unpublished notebooks.)

To point out that earlier socialist writers have anticipated Bastani’s glowing predictions is not to cavil about a record of unmet promises. Rather, their writings remind us that early visions of socialist superabundance also followed an extractive model, which would “retain humanity’s power over nature, while eliminating the capitalists’ power over the workers.” Moreover, for Owen, the blessings of industry fed the enlightened imperialist urge “to extend the knowledge which [Britain] has herself acquired of creating wealth or new productive power, to the rest of Europe, to Asia, Africa, and America.”

Indeed, one of the Albritton Jonsson and Wennerlind’s most salient arguments is that, though the Ehrlichs were castigated for economic shortsightedness, it has been the Cornucopians who have struggled to account for the long-term effects of extraction, ecological imperialism, and anthropogenic climate change. Thinking about limits helps plan for the long term.

Sadly, this expansionist impulse has not been limited to the Cornucopians. Even the Finitarian critic of industry John Ruskin—whom Albritton Jonsson and Wennerlind laud as an early monitor of atmospheric pollution and critic of consumption—had no trouble recommending that Britain “found colonies as fast and as far as she is able … seizing every piece of fruitful waste ground she can set her foot on.”

It is dissatisfying, to say the least, to take a closer look at these trade-offs, whether extractivist socialists or green Ruskinians fanning out from the idyllic Lake District to cultivate “waste[s]” the world over. But these, in turn, underscore perhaps the one disappointing aspect of Scarcity: the resolute Eurocentrism of its archive, and, even within that geographic tradition, the unaccountable exclusivity of its central figures.

This will not be news to the authors. In both their introduction and conclusion, Albritton Jonsson and Wennerlind carefully reiterate that their study is limited to those ideas that “shaped capitalism and modernity.” And this, they admit, leads them to engage with, “for the most part, a narrow range of elite, white, male thinkers.” Electing to limit their sources to those of the elite class, however, introduces a striking, perhaps insoluble tension between the study’s sources and its subject. To a truly surprising extent, Scarcity offers a sweeping view of human neediness as seen from the high table of plenty.

This focus on elites is only sporadically freshened by forays into the writings of a few white workingmen such as Winstanley and Clare. The only pre-20th-century female thinkers included, meanwhile, are Dorothy Wordsworth and Harriet Martineau. There is evidently limited interest here in engaging with the robust body of work—by Marcus Rediker, Carolyn Steedman, Saidiya Hartman, Jesse Lemisch, and many other scholars—that has challenged us to retell the history of ideas as a story in which those living in the shadows of power, capital, and the ivory tower are thinkers, not just followers.

The unrelenting whiteness and maleness of this intellectual history matters because, as Scarcity frequently reminds us, “to develop new ideas, we need to understand the past.” But which past? The authors do disavow the notion that “the Western canon should be the only fountain of ideas from which to draw when thinking about the future.” Yet at the same time, they insist that “other scholars are better equipped to write this more expansive history of opposition to capitalism beyond the Western canon.”


The Necessity of an Alternative

By James Ley

This seems, on one hand, fair and humble: by definition, all experts have limits to their realm of specialized knowledge. But a work of intellectual history (let alone one published in 2023) does a disservice in tracing any lineage of Western thinking as if it did not include the countless intellectuals of color working within, alongside, or in response to “the Western canon” during the past centuries, or were cleanly extricable from intellectual currents outside Europe and the pervasive influence of colonial encounters and exchange on even the most rarefied Enlightenment salons.

Scarcity offers an undeniable bounty, but as I closed it, I felt unsated.

I hungered to know how the writings of Olaudah Equiano—who experienced life in 18th-century West Africa, slavery in the Americas, and commercial prosperity in London—might complicate Adam Smith’s heady optimism about American economic progress; or how the speeches of the Jamaican revolutionary abolitionist Robert Wedderburn might offer a counterpoint to Hume’s view that “capitalism could reduce the tension between desire for and availability of material wealth.” I wished the 17th-century Cornucopians’ writings on the world of plenty they foresaw might be juxtaposed with Silvia Federici’s exposition of the role of witch hunts and women’s confinement to reproductive labor in the making of capitalism. And I’d waited in vain for Albritton Jonsson and Wennerlind to consider how Indigenous intellectuals—from 19th-century Penobscot writer Joseph Nicolar to Standing Rock Sioux theologian Vine Deloria Jr.—surely anticipated and contributed to the discourse of “Planetary Scarcity”: a critique of “runaway extraction and consumption” that the authors attribute to a gamut of 20th-century white thinkers from Rachel Carson to Martin Heidegger.

These questions may take us outside of the Western canon as it was once delineated. But it is, after all, sweeping, magisterial works such as Scarcity that are responsible for determining what that canon includes. The curiosity I was left with at the end testifies to Scarcity’s richness, as well as to its limits. icon

This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames.

Featured image: St. Antony Hut, a former ironworks in the Klosterhardt district of Oberhausen, by Jakob Weeser-Krell, 1902.