This piece was originally published in Public Discourse.
Behind the dry equations and supply and demand curves of modern economics lies an entire anthropology. Humans, it posits, are fundamentally acquisitive beings, seeking to satisfy infinite wants in a finite world, directing our limited resources toward the satisfaction of unlimited demands. As economist Lionel Robbins put it, “We have been turned out of Paradise. . . . Everywhere we turn, if we choose one thing we must relinquish others. Scarcity of means to satisfy given ends is an almost ubiquitous condition of human behavior.”
But however intuitive this view feels today—it really does seem correct when I have to decide whether my paycheck will go toward attending a concert, or seeing a movie, or buying a new economics book—it’s far from the only way to conceive of humans and their environment. Modern economists’ conception of scarcity has such a monopoly on our imagination, Fredrik Albritton Jonsson and Carl Wennerlind argue in Scarcity: A History from the Origins of Capitalism to the Climate Crisis, only because we’ve forgotten the many competing approaches out there. By revealing alternative ways of thinking about scarcity, abundance, and growth over the last 500 years, Jonsson and Wennerlind—intellectual historians at the University of Chicago and Barnard College, Columbia University—hope to show how “scarcity itself can and should be liberated from its connotations in modern economics.”
Scarcity offers a crash course on the many musings that philosophers, artists, theologians, and economists have had on the topic. And despite their hostility to modern economics, Jonsson and Wennerlind reveal one deep similarity between it and rival accounts: in every case, the seemingly mundane topic of scarcity raises some of the most foundational questions one can ask. Jonsson and Wennerlind’s historical investigations helpfully illustrate how tawdry matters of getting and spending have always been underlaid by questions about man, nature, technology, and their relations.