Lacy MacAuley


a home for my pen, projects, and passions

an economics paradigm of scarcity: a theory that should be thrown out

Economic laws that dictated, among other things, that scarcity was a “universal condition of human life” (Estavo, p18), followed the dictates of science. Basic scientific theory states that if a hypothesis proves to be incorrect, it is thrown out. But the initial assumption of economic laws or facts that were thought by the founding fathers of economics to be evident everywhere, in all human conditions, has been subsequently shown to be false.

Ethnobotanist Wade Davis observed that in the Penan indigenous peoples of Malaysia, "sharing is an obligation."

Ethnobotanist Wade Davis observed that in the Penan indigenous peoples of Malaysia, "sharing is an obligation."

Why, then, has the model of market economics taken root to the extent that it is taught at universities, codified not only as a ‘social science’ but as a reasonable premise for countless discussions on who, what, when, where and why to develop?

That the basic economic assumptions underlying the idea of scarcity are false is not in question. Economics thinking assumes that all human beings are seeking only to maximize their personal material wealth at any given time. But there are countless examples of traditional communities in which there is no construct of personal wealth.

The anthropologist Richard B. Lee studied the lives of !Kung (Dobe Ju/’hoansi) bushmen, living in the Kalahari desert in Africa, a dry and scratchy area which at the time of his research was not significantly encroached upon by outside economic paradigms. He observed, “If I had to point to one single feature that makes this way of life possible, I would focus on sharing. Each Ju is not an island unto himself or herself; each is part of a collective… The living group pools the resources that are brought into camp so that everyone receives an equitable share” (Lee, p60).

In the work of the ethnobotanist Wade Davis, a researcher who studies the relationship between traditional communities and plants, he observes the communal ideals of the Penan indigenous peoples, who inhabit the dense Sarawak forests in Malaysia. Davis writes, “Sharing is an obligation, so there is no word for ‘thank you’ …[t]hey have no incentive to accumulate material objects. They measure wealth not by  the extent of their possessions but by the strength of their relationships” (Davis, p139).

If the initial data on which the hypothesis is based can be demonstrated to be bad data, why hasn’t the whole theory been thrown out? Isn’t that just the scientific process?

In my thinking, scarcity is a result of the fact that resources are distributed inequitably. Land, the source of all material wealth and therefore the source of our material well-being, has been annexed by those in power and those with guns, and doled back out to any who agree to the colonizers’ economic paradigms. An abundance ideology focuses on the whole of the world’s resources and how to equitably foster true well-being, not simply increased share of one’s GNP. To do that, a new relationship with the land will be required.


The Development Dictionary; Wolfgang Sachs, 1992. London: Zed.
A Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures; Wade Davis, 2007. Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., Canada.

The Dobe Ju/’hoansi, 2nd, ed; Richard B. Lee, 1984. Harcourt Inc., Orlando, FL.


Filed under: books, consumerism, human welfare, international relations, thoughts and philosophies

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