"Scarcity" as Political Strategy
Reflections on Three Hanging Children

by Nicholas Hildyard

first published 6 June 2005

There are two striking features of "scarcity" -- not enough food or water or land and so on -- within modern economic theory: one, its failure to explain what it claims to explain; and two, its enduring appeal despite this failure. Hunger, for example, is rarely caused by an absolute scarcity (no food at all) but socially-generated ones -- not enough food in some places for some people because of various mechanisms that give more power to some people to deny food to others.

But even if it is (reluctantly) acknowledged that yesterday's or today's famines and resource crises are not caused by too many people but by a range of political conflicts, the claim that there will not be enough food, water, land, housing or clean air in future because of future population growth still seems plausible.

Despite this power of scarcity and population to colonise the future, resources crises are likely to be rooted in the same dynamics as they are today: political conflict, sexism, racism, human rights abuses, and environmentally destructive practices. To prepare for future resource crises, it would be more sensisble to address the present than to look to a theoretical model of the future.

This paper was presented at a conference on "Scarcity and the Politics of Allocation", held at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Brighton, UK from 6-7 June 2005. Participants at the conference drew up and issued a statement on "scarcity" highlighting the various actions that should be taken to prevent more powerful groups from capturing resources at the expense of weaker ones.

It was subsequently published in a book, The Limits to Scarcity: Contesting the Politics of Allocation, edited by Lyla Mehta and published by Earthscan in December 2010.