Appropriate Scarcity

by Robert A. Herendeen

  … appealing to people to restrain themselves [by] self-enforced abstinence alone is a waste of time. By and large, we consume as much as our incomes allow…. changes… cannot take place without constraints that apply to everyone rather than everyone else. Manmade global warming cannot be restrained unless we persuade the government to force us to change the way we live.

—George Monbiot, Heat (2006/2009)

The results indicate that the likelihood of paying a positive amount for supporting renewable energy is higher under a mandatory scheme compared to a voluntary payment option in the UK.

—Elcin Akcura, “Mandatory vs. voluntary payment for green electricity,” Ecological Economics (2015)

I believe what Monbiot says is true. And Akcura (who knew?) provides research-based confirmation.

I envision fulfilling, challenging, joyful lives within environmental constraints, but I can’t imagine that happening without societal signals to reinforce consistent behavior. If level of consumption is a problem, then scarcity is a necessary part of the solution. In the least disruptive and potentially fairest sense, this means using prices to determine demand. To cut to the conclusion: my favorite example is a carbon tax.

Monbiot’s statement is frightening, Draconian, and an apparent non-starter politically… almost. But the consequence of denying it leads to several futile proposals and viewpoints which permeate the literature, both scholarly and public. They are futile because they do not produce results that are big enough and fast enough to beat back anthropogenic climate change. Hearing them repeatedly frustrates me. These are:

  1. We citizens are being sold the idea that economic growth (especially GDP) is good by government bureaucracies that need it to stay alive, and by corporations that want it because they are greedy (e.g., “the 1%”).
  2. We are personally acquisitive because of intensive advertising. Otherwise, we would readily embrace “enough is plenty.”
  3. A steady state economy will only be achieved when a new human consciousness emerges. That is not exactly imminent, but it’s in sight.
  4. Peer pressure will solve the classic (game theoretic?) problems of free riders, defection, and over-riding competitive ambition in general.

The human beings that I observe, work and live with, and love, largely don’t fit these principles. This includes me. We need help. So, about these points:

The Temple to Ramesses II at Abu Simbel (II); on scarcity

The Temple to Ramesses II at Abu Simbel (II). (Credit: Institute for the Study of the Ancient World)

Most of us don’t know or care what GDP is. However, we do have explicit or implicit desires for material/experiential growth at the personal or familial level. Such as: a larger house, a vacation cottage, a new car, a foreign eco-tour, increased travel to visit the grandkids, a secure college fund or retirement package, some new clothes—probably before the old ones wear out. Sum these aspirations over the population and you have pressure for overall growth.

Recently I asked who in my circle at the edge of academia in a progressive college town wants zero personal or professional economic growth. Not soon-to-graduate students looking for the first job. Not immigrants who arrive with almost nothing. Not newlyweds considering starting a family. Not academics building research programs or pursuing tenure. Not college presidents. Not development officers of green non-profit organizations. Not the mayor or city council. And of course not the usual suspects in the business community. I finally concluded that some well-off retirees seem to want zero growth….that’s about it.

Watch a TV auto ad and it’s difficult not to suspect—and resent—advertising’s role in fanning the flames of demand. (Mmmmm, a lone car on an otherwise unoccupied road accelerating against the shriek of the engine and the announcer’s deep n’ throaty voice…). But what advertising seduced Pharaoh Ramesses II into carving four 65-foot-tall likenesses of himself from native rock at Abu Simbel ca. 1250 BC? Or the government of Dubai into erecting the 2,722 foot (i.e, 0.52 mile) Burj Khalifa Tower in 2009 AD? I believe essentially all of us are hard-wired to want more of something for some reason. If there is good evidence that advertising is the culprit in overall consumption growth and not just in choosing between spending options, let’s see it.

Given the three-millennia separation of the two above construction projects, I think it is wishful thinking to expect Homo sapiens to spontaneously embrace zero growth collectively any time soon.

But even if 99+% of us do that, what about the non-cooperators? To the extent that the world is zero-sum (a politically incorrect but applicable description if there really are limits), it takes only a few competitively acquisitive individuals to produce a mess. If the few want more, sooner or later they will destabilize a group of otherwise modest, cooperative individuals. Envy kicks in, or defensive measures to avoid losing. An example of the latter: What to do when the tax bill on your modest abode skyrockets when Ringo Starr and Mick Jagger move in next door (aka the “Aspen effect”)? Try to maintain your modest lifestyle and move 40 miles downriver, or do what it takes to get into the high production/consumption game yourself?

All this brings me back to Monbiot’s bald and bold statement: there is negligible action without effective, broadly felt, implementable…scarcity. In other words, “appropriate scarcity” is not optional; it is necessary. Yes, increasing the price of “bads” is a frequent theme on these pages, but often only as one item in a longish list of principles based on Herman Daly’s powerful writings. Rather, it should be at the top of the list.

There is no question that accomplishing scarcity (for fossil energy, say) by caps and/or taxes is politically, socially, economically, and humanly difficult—a global top-ten red flag. I believe that at the U. S. national level at least, it is feasible. Equity impacts can be minimized by income tax rebates to lower-income households. Other impacts, especially regional, are tougher. In general, moving slowly reduces disruption, but we have scant time. What I hope for is national-level appropriate scarcity of fossil fuels. Done right (a daunting task, to be sure), we can reinforce our own behavior in doing what we (say we) must do to restrain global warming, and have good lives doing it.

Robert Herendeen is a fellow at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont. His research interests include energy consumption, quantitative analysis of environmental issues, and environmental bookkeeping. He is a physicist who conducts economic input-output analyses to determine resource requirements and other impacts of consumption, following the parallels between economic and ecological systems and analysis of perturbed ecosystems. His most recent work covers the connection between net energy and the price of all consumer products.

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8 replies
  1. Aquifer
    Aquifer says:

    We keep hearing about how at least one of our political candidates, from your state, is “courageous” for “raising” and “leading” on issues, how he is “pushing the conversation to the left” – but he ain’t leading on the issues you raise. Have you communicated with him on this? If so, what is his response? if not, i urge you to do so – now is the time … We are running out of it, and we need a bigger megaphone for your, and Prof. Daly’s, ideas than an internet site can provide, no matter how cogent, relevant, and insightful it is ….

    Publish a “Dear Sen. Sanders, ” letter and put it out there …

    We keep hearing about the need to “push” our politicians – and now is the time to do, while they are subject to more scrutiny on a bigger stage … I realize that many academics feel it is “not their place” – but i think, at least i hope, that the needed and welcome participation of GW scientists in the public sphere has changed the thinking on that …

    Don’t wait to be “invited” as you probably never will be …

  2. Sally Wengrover, Ph.D.
    Sally Wengrover, Ph.D. says:

    Dr. Herendeen, to some extent, I advanced the four “futile” arguments, which you find so frustrating, in my doctoral dissertation, “Should Advertising Remain a Tax-Deductible Business Expense,: and my e-book, “It’s Up to Us.” For that reason, I want to respond to each of your four points.

    On point #1, I agree with you that the vast majority of people want more stuff, including a larger house, a new car, a foreign eco-tour, and so forth. I also agree that those aspirations, summed up across the population, create pressure for economic growth. At the same time, I think that politicians and corporate executives sometimes beat the drum for economic growth for reasons of self-interest, and that the public—incessantly pressured to keep up with the Joneses—tends to accept the elites’ argument that growth will help them keep up, without considering whether keeping up is adding to or subtracting from their wellbeing.

    On point #2, I agree that people tend to be acquisitive, with or without advertising. However, in my view, there is solid evidence that advertising is a factor in the growth of consumption overall as well as in “choosing between spending options.” I present that evidence in my dissertation, particularly on pages 252 through 260. If you wish, you can download the dissertation at:

    As to point #3, I agree that “accomplishing scarcity” might not depend on the emergence of a new human consciousness. Government could impose scarcity through “caps and/or taxes.” But, to be brief, in the absence of a shift in consciousness, government-imposed scarcity will almost certainly lead to social unrest. Already, a significant minority abhor regulations, and a significant minority of that minority talk about utilizing “Second-Amendment remedies” to retake their freedom from the hands of “big government.” Moreover, if you’re right that most people want “material/experiential growth at the personal or familial level,” it seems likely that moderates and progressives would also resent having scarcity imposed from above, unless a good argument for consumption reduction persuades them to perform a values shift first.

    And on point #4, I agree that peer pressure alone is unlikely to solve the collective-action problem surrounding overconsumption, but is any one thing likely to solve the problem? Even with a tax or a cap, some people will find a way to cheat.

    The ecosphere is unraveling on multiple fronts. If we are to slow, stop, and reknit the unraveling, we would be wise to:
    1. Help the public and the leaders of wealthy nations understand that environmental conditions require us to shift our main economic goal from quantitative growth to qualitative development.
    2. Recognize that advertising instills materialistic values, which lead to a number of bad consequences, including the overconsumption of resources and overproduction of wastes, and based on that recognition, reduce our exposure to advertising.
    3. Help to shift human consciousness away from the goal of satisfying immediate self-interest to the goal of leaving a healthy environment for posterity.
    4. Confront the collective-action problem with peer pressure. While peer-pressure alone is unlikely to reduce consumption sufficiently, it will help, both by encouraging people to reduce their consumption and by persuading them to accept caps or taxes on consumption.

  3. Norman Pagett
    Norman Pagett says:

    We—humanity in general that is, cannot prevent ourselves from seeking out more of that which will (or might) support our chances of survival
    Nature didn’t evolve us that way–or any other species on the planet for that matter. Nature evolved us to survive and thrive, or die in the attempt. Sorry, but every species is made that way.
    Roughly calculated (and open to argument) we’ve had around 80000 generations of evolution to bring ourselves to where we are now, from our prehuman existence—the point where we either go extinct, or at best force ourselves through an evolutionary bottleneck where a few thousands survive to move on to the next phase of human development.
    In all those generations, our sole concern has been survival. And to do that we’ve engaged in every form of homicide and genocide to do it. Why? because nature insists on it.
    To imagine that now, after countless millenia, we can suddenly decide to stop doing what we do best and start being nice to each other, really is the stuff of fantasy.
    When we pass through that bottleneck—who knows what changes will come to our collective mindset?
    Maybe the realisation will dawn that we have to cooperate to survive—but then again, genetic forces will still be at work to force ‘leaders’ to the front and assist their offspring before anyone else’s. We will certainly have few resources to work with, and we cannot survive without them.
    So the fight to survive is likely to kick off again….thus leading to extinction.
    Maybe humankind is destined to be another of nature’s failed life-form experiments. There have been lots of those, we cannot count ourselves as priveleged.

  4. Brian Sanderson
    Brian Sanderson says:

    “The human beings that I observe, work and live with, and love, largely don’t fit these principles.”
    Of course they don’t. They, like you, are products of a culture that results when a small-group animal (humans) become overpopulated. The actual human animal is capable of many other types of culture — but not when overpopulated.

    You seem to be promoting scarcity as a means to cutting the use of fossil fuel. If you look at the per capita use of fossil fuels in North America (and similar nations) then you will see that it rose for a time but has been slowly falling for many decades. This contradicts your theory that individuals aspire to unbounded consumption.

    Of course, I can’t really call it your theory since you are only following long-standing dogma of economics. John E. Sayre and Alan J. Morris say in the 3rd edition of their book, “Principles of Macroeconomics”:
    “Economics is the study of the allocation of scarce resources to produce goods and services that are used to maximize human satisfaction in the face of unlimited human wants.”
    In truth, it is an impossibility for an individual to be unlimited in any way whatsoever. That is why economists are always so ambitious to force further overpopulation — so that they can shape culture to their rotten theory!

    Unfortunately, “steady-state economists” are also products of economic doctrine. That is why they consistently fail to understand the central role played by overpopulation.

    Instead we get a stream of false fixes from the steady state economists. The fix that you presently advocate seems to be some sort of imposed scarcity. I point you to the work by Ember and Ember (2004) who find that:
    “Warfare, in turn, is strongly predicted by unpredictable but expected resource scarcity”
    Of course, Colinvaux (1979, 1980) arrived at the same result from the much more solid foundation of ecology and evolution.

    You and Monbiot are playing a very dangerous game.

  5. Sally Wengrover, Ph.D.
    Sally Wengrover, Ph.D. says:

    The following paragraph, which I’ve pasted here in response to Norman Pagett’s comment, is from my e-book, “It’s Up to Us.”

    For a long time, we thought humans had evolved as self-interested competitors, based, in part, on the assumption that natural selection favored selfishness.[1] In recent years, however, neuroscientists have discovered that our brains have two types of competitive mechanisms. One directs us to react rapidly and instinctively (selfishly) in the face of present danger. The other enables us to deliberate (altruistically) about the potential consequences of our decisions on others as well as ourselves.[2] According to a growing number of researchers (including evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, philosopher of science Elliott Sober, and psychology professor Jonathan Haidt), survival-of-the-fittest competitions do occur between individuals, as we have long believed, but they also occur between groups.[3] And in group-versus-group competitions, the ones that demonstrate greater internal cohesion, cooperation, empathy, and altruism are more likely to be the ones that survive long enough to pass on their genes to subsequent generations. For that reason, biology and mathematics professor Martin Nowak has called cooperation “the master architect of [human] evolution”;[4] and Jonathan Haidt has called human beings “the giraffes of altruism.”[5] Thus, natural selection has favored not only self-interested individuals but also empathic and altruistic ones.

    [1] Ruse, Michael. 2009. Philosophy After Darwin: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
    [2] Kahneman, Daniel. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
    [3] Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon; Sober, Elliott, and David Sloan Wilson. 2003. Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
    [4] Nowak, Martin, and Roger Highfield. 2011. SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed. New York: Simon and Schuster, p. xx.
    [5] Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon, p. 198.

  6. Ghung
    Ghung says:

    “Done right (a daunting task, to be sure), we can reinforce our own behavior in doing what we (say we) must do to restrain global warming, and have good lives doing it.”

    There is no WE when it comes to a collective positive response. Never has been. Societies quit growing when they’re forced to by environmental and resource limits, and/or war. Very few examples out of thousands of societies, historically, where limits to growth were heeded. Our global collection of societies no longer has any examples, at any scale that matters.

    Looks OK on paper. The bad news is that humans are about 500% into overshoot relating to the natural carrying capacity of their planet. Unnatural schemes that got us to this point merely accelerate the decline of our biosphere, and unnatural schemes to correct that imbalance are hopeless until human population drops into a range the planet can support.

    Nature and physics don’t strike bargains.

  7. Victor
    Victor says:

    I believe, scientists …is the problem. The new consciousness is probably the last chance for humanity. And not AI, nor robots, or all that hi-tech hype that abound. And by new consciousness I understand the elegant simplicity of living, ethics an aesthetics that raise our worthiness as humans. Artists have much more to say about what real values are. I presume, scientists have to be re-habilitated by artists and poets. I vote for the tyrany of poets.


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