is an excerpt from
The Politics of Universal Compassion (forthcoming),
by Joel Federman
is a belief that is so widely held that it is not even thought of as a
belief but rather simply as an expression of the way things are. The belief
in scarcity is contrary to a truly universal compassion in that to believe
in scarcity is to believe that for one person or one group to have their
needs met and desires fulfilled, others must necessarily do without having
their needs met and desires fulfilled. To believe in scarcity is therefore
to disbelieve in the possibility of universal need satisfaction. In turn,
it means that universal compassion, which involves the advancement the
universal fulfillment of basic human needs , as in universal human economic,
social, and political rights, is completely unrealizable.
The problem of scarcity can be understood in two ways. In the broadest
sense, scarcity concerns the relative access by everyone to every good
(economic, social, political, spiritual, interpersonal) in the world.
In this sense, scarcity means that the goods of the world, whatever they
may be, are ultimately limited in relation to the number of people in
society, and that therefore for some to receive or achieve those goods
others must be denied them. In other words, life is a "zero sum game."
In a narrower sense, scarcity concerns the satisfaction of the most basic
human needs and involves the assumption that there are insufficient resources
in the world to provide for the basic needs of everyone. It is scarcity
in this latter sense that is of most concern, because it is the perception
of a struggle for basic survival that most deeply animates the scarcity
concept. In particular, the survival issue is most pointed when it comes
to the relative availability of food, and that is the subject I will address
here, as a way of beginning to debunk the scarcity concept.
The first task of confronting the belief in scarcity is to make it clear
that it is a political norm, not an existential condition. In other words,
it is important to recognize that scarcity is a belief, not an unchangeable
"reality." For example, it is a common assumption that there is not enough
food produced globally to feed the entire world population. In addition,
it is assumed that, should foodstuffs be distributed to the poorest of
the poor, this would inevitably eventuate in a population increase that
would, again inevitably, create a need for food that would be greater
than the available supply of food. This latter assumption has been called
the "Malthusian" dilemma, after the economist Thomas Malthus, who first
put forward the argument in 1798. (Malthus, 1960: passim) Malthus argued
that giving more money to the poor would not ameliorate the problem of
hunger. Instead, given scarcity of food resources, such a policy would
only serve to drive the price of food higher, and thus continue to keep
it out of the hands of the poor: "The transfer of three additional shillings
a day to each labourer would not increase the quantity of meat in the
country. There is not at present enough for all to have a moderate share.
What then would be the consequence?...When an article is scarce, and cannot
be distributed to all, he that can show the most valid patent, that is,
he that offers the most money, becomes the possessor." Even an increase
in the production of food, he wrote, would not lead to the alleviation
of hunger, since "the spur that (such) riches would give to population
would more than counterbalance it; and the increased produce would be
to be divided among a more than proportionately increased number of people."
(Malthus, 1960: 356)
Malthus' argument is based on two assumptions, both of which are incorrect,
at least as applied at the turn of the 21st century. The first assumption,
regarding the relative availability of foodstuffs in the world at present,
can be dismissed rather directly. As of this writing, there are approximately
5.9 billion people living in the world. According to the Institute for
Food and Development Policy, current global grain production as of 1992
was sufficient for all people in world to consume 3,500 calories per day.
(Lappe, 1998: 8) Since an average human being suffices with 2,450 calories,
ipso facto, there are sufficient food resources to nourish every person
in the world, and there is no scarcity of food resources.
Global food production as of 1995 provides enough food resources for each
human being to consume have 4.3 pounds of total food per day, including
2.5 pounds of beans and nuts, 1.0 pounds of fruit and vegetables, and
slightly less than one pound of meat, milk, and eggs. (Lappe, 1998: 8)
As these data show, the presence of hunger, malnutrition and starvation
in the world, while widespread, is not caused by insufficient global production
of foodstuffs but rather the maldistribution of those foodstuffs. Therefore,
scarcity as regards foodstuffs does not exist. Scarcity is thus a political
problem, and not a material or economic one. It is a problem concerning
the distribution of food, not its production.
A compelling argument that undermines another assumption of the scarcity
worldview at a broader level, namely the Malthusian argument that the
world's population inevitably grows to the point where it outstrips the
ability of the food production system to maintain that population, was
made more than twenty years ago by the economist Barry Commoner (1974).
Commoner's argument was set forth in an article the title of which makes
its basic point: Why Poverty Causes Overpopulation, and Not the Other
Way Around. In that article, Commoner argues that standard of living
has a direct effect on population growth. He points to correlations between
GNP per capita and birthrates. The poorest countries (with GNP per capita
less than $500 per year) have the highest birthrates, 40-50 per 1,000
people per year, while countries with higher GNP have decreasing birthrates,
reaching about 20 per 1,000 at $750-1,000 GNP per capita. Most of the
countries in North America and Europe have about the same low birthrates
(these are 1969-70 figures): 15-18 per 1,000, yet their GNP's per capita
vary widely. Commoner concludes that "in order to bring the birthrates
of the poor countries down to the low levels characteristic of the rich
ones, the poor countries do not need to become as affluent...as the U.S.
Achieving a per capita birthrate only, let us say, one-fifth of that of
the U.S....these countries could...reach birthrates almost as low as that
of the European and North American countries." (Commoner, 1974: 5)
A more recent analysis of updated wealth and population statistics by
John Vandermeer re-confirms Commoners conclusions: "(A)s development proceeds,
first death rates fall (due to higher standards of living and better medical
care) and then birth rates fall (due to lowered desire for having children)....That
this transition is related to general economic indicators is hardly debatable....(T)here
is a clear relationship between birth rate and gross national product."
From these data, it can be reasonably argued that raising the per capita
income of any country--or, for that matter, the world as a whole--above
a minimum level such as Commoner suggests would lower the relevant birthrate
to the level of that in the advanced industrial countries. Therefore,
it can be concluded that by alleviating poverty we can alleviate overpopulation,
thus short-circuiting the Malthusian logic that providing resources to
the poor inevitably leads to a growth in population that eventuates future
shortages in food.
Since the Malthusian scarcity equation is thus disproved, and there would
be no increase in future suffering caused by ending hunger today, there
is no excuse for the suffering of millions around the world currently
facing starvation and malnutrition. Ending hunger on a planetary scale--
a basic goal for those who believe in universal compassion-- is therefore
a realistic possibility.
2002 Joel Federman