A little over a week ago, in a talk I gave at the Appalachian Center at the University of Kentucky, “Trash the System or Crash the Planet,” I noted that Naomi Klein and many other environmentalists treat the natural environment as scarce, as immutable or given.
What is strange about that argument is that it’s exactly the framework—of unlimited desires and limited means—that forms the basis of the economic theory she and others—including me—are so critical of. It’s how neoclassical economists, the ones who promote free trade and criticize any and all forms of government intervention, understand the world: through the lens of scarcity. It’s how they arrive at their conclusion that, in a world of private property and free markets, self-interested households and corporations will arrive at an efficient allocation of scarce resources. All societies face the same problem—scarcity—and free markets are the best way of dealing with it.
Now, I understand that free-marketeers actually want it both ways: a scarce nature in their neoclassical theories of value, and natural limitations that can ultimately be overcome (as in this recent piece by Matt Ridley) through technological innovation.
But what about that notion of scarcity?
What Klein and others seem NOT to want to imagine is that each society—each way of organizing the economic dimensions of our lives, each way of arranging the production, consumption, and distribution of goods and services—has its own laws of resources, both human and nonhuman. Of workers as well as of oil, of population as well as water. What that means is that changing institutions leads to a change in scarcity—of what is scarce, how it is scarce, what scarcity means, and so on. It is not a question of acknowledging and adapting to scarcity, as neoclassical economists want us to do, but of undoing existing forms of scarcity by changing the institutions whereby we treat resources—again, both human and nonhuman—as scarce. Instead of what? Instead of abundant, overflowing, unproductive, and so on.
What I have in mind, of course, is George Bataille’s critique of the classical notion of utility or usefulness in favor of the notion of expenditure. An abundant instead of a scarce nature.
A concrete example of what I have in mind is a dispute—one that is back in the news as a result of the ruling by a federal judge in favor of seed giant Monsanto Co. in a lawsuit filed on behalf of 60 family farmers, seed businesses and organic agricultural organizations challenging the company’s seed patents. Monsanto is creating a particular kind of scarcity, which is useful to its bottom line, a scarcity of patented seeds and intellectual property, which stands opposed to the farmers who want to save and share seeds, and thus to treat nature as not scarce but abundant. As providing abundant seeds and proliferating food variety and as the basis of livelihood for millions of farmers. Or, to invoke another example, the scarcity of land as private property for cattle ranchers in Brazil versus the abundance of latex, with carefully scored rubber trees, for rubber-tappers like Chico Mendes, who was subsequently killed for attempting to protect the abundance of the forest and the livelihoods of the rubber-tappers.
The challenge, it seems to me, is to treat scarcity as an economic and social construction, as the product of particular kinds of institutions and discourses, and to tap the potential of rethinking nature as abundant.
To do so will allow us to imagine trashing the system and, at the same time, avoid crashing the planet.