Scarcity: What do you think?

A brief passage from the Slow Church manuscript (specifically the part on economics).

I’d love your input on this… Are there enough resources to sustain creation as a whole?   And regardless, how do we know, if there are or are not? Is this a question that can only be answered theologically?

Despite the opulent abundance of creation, the world’s economic systems are built upon a foundation of scarce resources.   Scarcity is explicitly or implicitly given primacy of place in many definitions of economics as a social science. For example, the “most commonly accepted current definition” is from Lionel Robbins: “Economics is a science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.”[i]  The standard economic story is that if a resource is perceived to be scarce and the demand for it is high, then people will be willing to pay more for it, and the price will go up.  There are situations of real and apparent scarcity in the world; people die of hunger due to famines and complex socio-economic systems that prevent the movement of sufficient food from places that have too much to famine areas.  We also see the effects of apparent scarcity when prices skyrocket for the latest toy or video-game that every kid wants for Christmas and that stores can’t keep in stock.  What we are primarily interested in, however, is the big picture: are there enough resources in creation for the sustenance of all life? This question is a complex one and we can create vast systems that support our particular answer, but ultimately we can only answer in faith. Although answering in negative is a useful mythology for protecting the interests of wealthy nations and individuals, we believe that the biblical narrative compels us to answer in the affirmative: God loves creation and has provided and will provide the sustenance that we need. 

[i] Backhouse Roger E. & Steven Medema 2009 “Retrospectives: On the Definition of Economics” J of Economic Perspectives V. 23 #1 p. 225. (emphasis added)


  • Tripp Hudgins

    I wonder if we need to disentangle this a bit. An old professor of mine used to say of science and faith, “the science is the how; theology is the why.” I think the same is true in understanding the realities of our environment and our theology. We can make completely false environmental claims if we say “God is the giver of all good gifts and whether there are seven billion or seventy billion of us, God will provide.” I think that’s incredibly dangerous. That said, an anthropological theology that compels us to take one another and our environment seriously because God gave us stewardship over all creation would also compel us to take one another seriously as part and parcel of creation because faith declared and biology confirms that we are indeed part of the ecology of this planet and not outside of it.

    These are just my first thoughts.

    • erbks

      Thanks, Tripp… Yes, a little disentangling is what I am looking for… :)

      • Tripp Hudgins

        Well, let’s get the ball rolling. What are the concepts at work here?

        • erbks

          On the “science” side of things, there are questions about both renewable and non-renewable resources… The renewable ones are particularly complex, because through resiliency, adaptation, cultivation, weather, etc, it’s really insanely complex to quantify how much there will be at any given point in the future.

          And then philiosophically/theologically, there are questions about desire (for humans and other creatures). Culture is so mutable that it’s difficult to determine what is “enough” in terms of diet… And then factors like emotions of fear, etc and how they drive human behavior.

          Well, that’s a start.

          • Tripp Hudgins

            Then what are the concepts we can manage to speak to with any truth and/or accuracy? I think that anthropology is the key in all of this. No matter what our *actual* resources, how we view one another will dictate how, when, why, or if we share them in some way.

          • erbks

            Most def. But anthropology follows from mythology, right? — i.e., some story about the nature of the world (its origins and destiny,etc), humanity, and how we should live in the world?

          • Tripp Hudgins

            Yes? Perhaps. The overlap of concepts could be their common genesis (pun intended). The createdness and parallel redemption is what I think we’re after. If we are a redeemed humanity, then how shall we live? If all creation is also redeemed, restored, if you will, how shall we live? How do we understand our resources as commonly blessed with the same grace that blesses us? Genesis?

          • erbks

            Tripp, sounds like you’re going in a similar direction to Josh’s comment (BrockCassian) above…

    • erbks

      And as Bill Cavanaugh emphasizes in BEING CONSUMED, desire is part of this narrative as well. What exactly is “sustenance” and how is our understanding of sustenance shaped by our desires in a consumer culture?

  • brockcassian

    One of the things I wrestle with as I work with Stewardship formation is the categories themselves- Scarcity, Abundance, and Sufficiency. I think you are dead on that our economic models assume a finite about of resources. Competition then becomes the mode of commerce- scarcity drives up price as supply is limited but demand is high. But to counter with an idea of abundance isn’t really an answer- 1) it isn’t really true (look at the ways we over use fossil fuels). The result of using language of abundance is that it comes with the cost of wasting what is indeed finite. 2) Sufficiency seems to be the better response to the economics of scarcity and competition. When we rethink our relationships with others- ie not assuming that we are in competition with our neighbors- we come to see our resources in a new light.

    So for me, the question is first and foremost not about commerce but about ecclesiology. We all don’t need individual tools (for example) but can cooperate with one another to share the tools we each have. Changing how we view one another is an economic act.

    • erbks

      Really appreciate this, Josh! And certainly agree that the primary questions are theological, and especially ecclesiological.

  • cmchien

    Hi Chris, I don’t know if this gets at the question you’re trying to ask, particularly from a theological perspective. I’m not really qualified to speak to that. I’m not qualified to speak from the economics perspective either, but… I tried to calculate global net income and wealth per person on this blog post:

    I was surprised to find that my family of 5 could actually live quite comfortably in San Francisco based on an even distribution of income. Perhaps this is one way to answer the question of “are there enough resources”, at least for the human population.

    • erbks

      Wow, Chi-Ming…. that is really fascinating!
      It’s a helpful snapshot of the present, but it seems like there are a lot of assumptions going into this sort of analysis, particularly measuring resources in the abstract terms of money?

      • cmchien

        This is true. Many, many assumptions. It doesn’t get close to properly naming the issues: what constitutes enough, how we ought to relate to one another. But I guess what it seems to say to me is that *even within* the limitations of the traditional economist’s frame and using their language there is “enough”.

        Dan Bell’s “The Economy of Desire” has a couple of very helpful chapters comparing the capitalist theology, anthropology and vision of the good life with a Christian one including specifically addressing the issue of scarcity.

        • erbks

          Thanks for the tip on Dan Bell’s book. I think we have a copy somewhere here at Englewood, but I haven’t read it. Will try to find it and take a look…

  • Branson Parler

    From a biblical and theological standpoint, I’m interested in thinking through how the curse on the land in Gen. 3 connects with the promises regarding Sabbath year/year of Jubilee in Torah, and how both connect with the theme of limits. Adam oversteps his proper bounds and is cursed with ‘scarcity,’ while Israel is called to recognize limits and promised more than enough. I often hear people use Gen. 3 to give a theological explanation for scarcity, but they don’t often then point to the over-turning of that in the Sabbath year/year of Jubilee, which finds fulfillment in Jesus. This suggests to me that scarcity is less an ‘objective’ feature of a fallen creation and more a ‘subjective’ feature of fallen human culture. It’s also interesting to note how Acts 4:34 connects with Deut. 15:1-4 and the promise that “there shall be no needy among you” when people recognize their limits and walk in God’s ways. The question of scarcity cannot be a question of mere raw resources, then, but has to be about what kind of Spirit-empowered communities will observe the virtues of contentment and humility (recognizing limits). To paraphrase Wendell Berry, a finite piece of land that is well cared for can be infinitely fruitful.

  • Matt Cumings

    In permaculture we talk about returning the surplus. That is the natural reaction of a person operating in an economy based on abundance. Unlike Adam Smith, taking the land as a gift from God instead of something to be possessed and resources extracted from is vital to giving back to the land. Ultimately I think an economy based on one:s carbon exchange would be ideal. The amount of carbon one puts back into the ecosystem is proportionate to their worth. Maybe that is too hardline, it probably is but it can be tweaked for sure. Anyway, have you check out Charles Einstein and The Sacred Economy? Might add to the discussion.

  • David S. Smith

    It is interesting that the discussion above focuses on scarcity/abundance in the context of depth. Isn’t God’s abundance also in breadth?

    Does God provide the world with an infinite source of oil? Perhaps not, but he does provide us with an abundance of different types of energy (solar, wind, nuclear, human-powered). Put together, certainly the amount of energy available to us from different sources is abundant (though not all to the same efficiency). The same with food. God has certainly blessed us with an abundance of different types of food (plant and animal) that grow in abundance all over the world. This is a simple view of abundance that any Christian can share.

    On the deeper level, I affirm Josh’s (brockcassian) view that Christian ecclesiology has a role to play. I believe that a reading of the early church acknowledged that their resources were finite, but in the sharing of them they were miraculously abundant.

    I am a bit suprised that you haven’t engaged Parker Palmer’s writings on the assuption of scarcity in this discussion.

    • erbks

      Thanks, David… I’ve read and deeply appreciated most of Palmer’s books (except the most recent one), but it’s been awhile. Can you point me to the place (or two) where he most thoroughly addresses scarcity? Thanks!

      • David S. Smith

        Hi Chris,

        I haven’t read all his books, but he does have an essay in The Promise of Paradox called, “A World of Scarcity, A Gospel of Abundance” and in The Active Life, a chapter called, “‘Loaves and Fishes’: Acts of Scarcity or Abundance”.


        • erbks

          Thanks, will dig those up.