Home > Uncategorized > The logic of artificial scarcity at work

The logic of artificial scarcity at work

from Jason Hickel

We can also see the logic of artificial scarcity at work in the realm of consumption. Industrialists who fear that people’s existing needs are too limited to absorb capitalism’s immense productive output must seek to create new needs, or else the juggernaut will grind to a halt. This is accomplished by various means. One is to expand desires through sophisticated advertising campaigns – and to extend these campaigns into all public and private spaces – manipulating people’s emotions and psychology to create new “needs” for products that promise to grant them a sense of self-esteem, status, identity, sexual prowess and so on that did not exist before and indeed do not have to exist. Another is to create products that are designed to break down quickly (like laptops and smart phones today) or become rapidly obsolete (as with the rise of throwaway fashion), and which therefore must be replaced more frequently than would otherwise be necessary. Another is to preclude the development of public goods in order to ensure that people have no choice but to purchase private alternatives: for instance, blocking the construction of effective public transportation systems in order to ensure a steady stream of demand for the automobile industry.

On top of this, a significant portion of consumption in highly-industrialized countries is driven by an artificial scarcity of time. As pressure on labour mounts, the structural compulsion to work unnecessarily long hours leaves people with so little time in the day that they must pay firms to do things that they would otherwise be able to do themselves: cook meals, clean their homes, watch their children, care for their elderly parents. Meanwhile, the stress of overwork creates needs for anti-depressants, sleep aids, alcohol, dieticians, gym memberships, therapy, marital counselling, expensive holidays, and other products that people would otherwise be less likely to feel they require. To pay for these products and services, people need to work yet more to increase their incomes, driving a vicious circle of unnecessary production and consumption.

All of this reveals an interesting contradiction. The ideology of capitalism is that it is a system that generates immense abundance (just think of all the products that one sees displayed on television and in shopfronts, which parade as an extraordinary cornucopia of stuff). But in reality it is a system that relies on the constant production of scarcity.   read more

  1. deshoebox
    March 21, 2019 at 4:52 pm

    Good thinking, Mr. Hickel. Also the right approach given that (a) there really is enough to go around and (b) every person born on the planet has an inalienable right to a life-sustaining share of everything needed for a secure, healthy, and productive life. If you accept these two ideas as the fundamental principles of a new economics and followed them through into public policy and law, this would be a good start toward a world of radical abundance.

  2. lobdillj
    March 21, 2019 at 10:16 pm

    This is a very interesting point of view.

  3. March 22, 2019 at 12:12 am

    Re: Jason Hickel, “Degrowth: a theory of radical abundance”

    Thanks for your provocative defense of degrowth, a welcome contribution though I have long been critical of this approach (e.g., Schwartzman, D. (2012). ‘A Critique of Degrowth and Its Politics’, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 23(1), pp. 119–25).

    My comment on your article focuses on what you say regarding Grubler et al. (2018):
    “The LED model represents a “degrowth” scenario – a planned reduction of the material and energy throughput of the global economy. Its inclusion in the IPCC report as the only scenario that does not rely on questionable negative emissions technologies suggests that degrowth may be the only feasible way to achieve the emissions reductions required by the Paris Agreement. This is a major milestone in climate mitigation theory.”

    Here is what we say in the Epilogue (p.243-244) of our book The Earth is Not for Sale (2019) (see our book website: http://theearthisnotforsale.org):

    “Since the issue of how much energy humanity really needs is so critical to the OWSP [Other World that is Still Possible], we discuss the following paper at some length. The title of Grubler et al.’s (2018) paper is: ‘A low energy demand scenario for meeting the 1.5 °C target and sustainable development goals without negative emission technologies.’ Their abstract states, ‘Our scenario meets the 1.5 °C climate target as well as many sustainable development goals, without relying on negative emission technologies.’ Starting with our critique, this scenario does meet ‘many sustainable development goals’ but falls far short of creating equity between the global South and North, leaving the global South in a state of relative energy poverty, while failing to generate the energy capacity to meet the challenges of climatic adaptation, especially for the global South, and a sufficient precautionary level of mitigation in the form of aggressive carbon sequestration from the atmosphere into the soil but especially the crust. Even with their implementation of projected state-of-the-science energy efficiencies in all sectors, the likely necessary level of primary energy consumption by 2050 will be greater than the present level of 18 TW (see discussion in chapter 4). We note that the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere post-2050 is not given in this paper. We conclude that a more robust global transition to wind/solar energy with global North/South equity would better serve the interests of future generations.

    Here is supporting evidence for our critique, drawing from Grubler et al. (2018) extensive Supplement (we converted EJ, GJ at 2050 to corresponding power units TW, kW respectively). By 2050: the final energy demand for the global North is 1.55 kW per capita (1.6 billion population assumed), while for the global South this demand is 0.63 kW per capita (7.6 billion population assumed) (Tables 3 and 24). The total primary energy consumption corresponds to 8.27 TW, final energy demand to 6.91 TW (Figure 15b). In their 2050 scenario, if the global South receives the same final energy demand per capita as the global North, the total demand would correspond to 14.3 TW (primary consumption to 17 TW). Note their total contingency reserve corresponds to 0.5 TW (Table 24). In their discussion preceding Table 31, they say, ‘Sequestration into newly grown forested land and bioenergy plantations biomass also increases the carbon sink which leads to a net sink of CO2 in the land sector of ‐4.3 Gt CO2/year by the end century.’ In comparison, Hansen et al. (2011) estimates that 100 Pg of carbon could be sequestered from the atmosphere by reforestation from 2031–2080 leaving 350 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere by 2100, equivalent to an average sequestration rate of 7.3 Gt CO2 /year. Finally, their 2050 scenario still results in roughly 3 million premature deaths per year from ambient air pollution compared to a cited natural level of 0.5 million per year.”

    Thus the LED model is a prescription for continued glaring disparities between the global North and South. We cannot accept this future.

    Finally, negative carbon emissions are imperative to bring the atmospheric CO2 level down below 350 ppm to meet the goal of keeping warming below 1.5 deg C. See our discussion in our chapter 4. The only feasible way to avoid climate catastrophe are radical changes in both the physical and political economies, yes degrow the Military Industrial Complex, implement a Global Green New Deal as a pathway for ecosocialist transition.

  4. Rob Reno
    March 22, 2019 at 2:08 am

    “in reality it is a system that relies on the constant production of scarcity.” To wit, the diamond trade.

  5. Rob Reno
    March 22, 2019 at 8:33 am

    Please publish more on this topic.

  6. Rob Reno
    March 22, 2019 at 9:08 am

    As an alumni of the University of Washington in Seattle I used to have access to the professional journals online. Then as the publishing industry shifted more and more behind the pay-walls I had to pay, and if I physically traveled to the University they made it harder and harder to access knowledge. I complained to the head research librarian and she sent me a four page email outlining the history and decrying it. What are we to do?

  7. Ken Zimmerman
    March 29, 2019 at 10:18 am

    What makes today’s corporations value employees with MBAs? It surely is not their knowledge of industry skills. Rather, it is their ability, an ability insisted on by CEOs to segment the world. Segmentation is just a fancy term for creating new ways to bring money into the corporation. The example of publishers of academic journals is just one among hundreds. MBAs invented paywalls and hired software companies to create software that protect publications, copyrighted or not from access by those without the proper codes. And somebody then sells the codes. When I was a boy most grocery stores delivered at no extra charge. Now they all charge a fee. When I worked with utility regulators, rates a utility could charge were beyond the utility’s control. But not fees. So as rates decreased, fees increased. This is the other side of what you describe as creating “new needs” to purchase. Both are intended to bring all the money available into the corporation. It’s not 100% effective but it gets better every year. Capitalism’s a tart; always on the make.

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