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Scarcity

A History from the Origins of Capitalism to the Climate Crisis

Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, Carl Wennerlind

ISBN 9780674987081

Publication date: 04/18/2023

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A sweeping intellectual history of the concept of economic scarcity—its development across five hundred years of European thought and its decisive role in fostering the climate crisis.

Modern economics presumes a particular view of scarcity, in which human beings are innately possessed of infinite desires and society must therefore facilitate endless growth and consumption irrespective of nature’s limits. Yet as Fredrik Albritton Jonsson and Carl Wennerlind show, this vision of scarcity is historically novel and was not inevitable even in the age of capitalism. Rather, it reflects the costly triumph of infinite-growth ideologies across centuries of European economic thought—at the expense of traditions that sought to live within nature’s constraints.

The dominant conception of scarcity today holds that, rather than master our desires, humans must master nature to meet those desires. Albritton Jonsson and Wennerlind argue that this idea was developed by thinkers such as Francis Bacon, Samuel Hartlib, Alfred Marshall, and Paul Samuelson, who laid the groundwork for today’s hegemonic politics of growth. Yet proponents of infinite growth have long faced resistance from agrarian radicals, romantic poets, revolutionary socialists, ecofeminists, and others. These critics—including the likes of Gerrard Winstanley, Dorothy Wordsworth, Karl Marx, and Hannah Arendt—embraced conceptions of scarcity in which our desires, rather than nature, must be mastered to achieve the social good. In so doing, they dramatically reenvisioned how humans might interact with both nature and the economy.

Following these conflicts into the twenty-first century, Albritton Jonsson and Wennerlind insist that we need new, sustainable models of economic thinking to address the climate crisis. Scarcity is not only a critique of infinite growth, but also a timely invitation to imagine alternative ways of flourishing on Earth.

Praise

  • Scarcity connects, dissects, and narrates the history of Western economic ideas about the natural limits to human societies…A new classic for historians of ideas.

    —Erle C. Ellis, Science

Authors

  • Fredrik Albritton Jonsson is Associate Professor of History and of Conceptual and Historical Studies in Science at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Enlightenment’s Frontier: The Scottish Highlands and the Origins of Environmentalism and, with Vicky Albritton, Green Victorians: The Simple Life in John Ruskin’s Lake District.
  • Carl Wennerlind is Professor of History at Barnard College, Columbia University, where he specializes in intellectual history and political economy. He is the author of Casualties of Credit: The English Financial Revolution, 1620–1720 and, with Margaret Schabas, A Philosopher’s Economist: Hume and the Rise of Capitalism.

Book Details

  • 304 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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