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Scarcity and Abundance

August 5, 2008

Part of the economic view I’m starting to see in the Bible is sometimes expressed in terms of ‘scarcity vs. abundance’, where our natural human tendency to hoard is contrasted against an economy of responsible use of resources and sharing of the products of those resources. Where much of the US economy seems to be posited on scarcity and the ‘need’ to produce, it would seem that God’s vision of the world is one where people enjoy the abundance that the earth provides, and that one way they celebrate this abundance is by sharing what they have with others.

Which isn’t exactly the picture we get when it comes to our ideas about food and farming, that’s for sure. I’ve been stringing together some thoughts about this from my recent reading and my limited personal knowledge gained as the grandson of a farmer who travelled the transition from the pre-World War II family farm to the postwar era of the industrial farm.

My thinking was sparked by Sara Miles, who feeds hundreds of San Franciscans each week by redistributing food that she buys for pennies by the ton. It is overages from harvests and from warehouses, and would be landfill in a week if she didn’t give it away.

And Sara sounds like Michael Pollan when he writes about changes in US farm practices over the past 100 years. Farmers who used to grow their own food and to raise a diversity of crops and livestock have responded to economic/governmental pressures, and grow corn, corn, corn. From fencerow to fencerow, many grow the same crop, year after year, relying on herbicides and pesticides to sustain an inherently unsustainable practice. (Wendell Berry points out that these farmers have switched from a natural economy to an unnatural one, taking on debt to grow cash so that they can fulfill their needs the way that the rest of us do– by buying stuff.) What is even crazier is the fact that the government has many programs to limit production, since such high efficiency has been achieved. And much of the food that is grown is used to flood the world markets, putting farmers in other countries out of work. So, while floods and droughts in the Midwest bring headlines about rising food costs, it would seem that our country is more than capable of feeding itself.

Closer to home are a few friends who pracically feed their families on the food they rescue from dumpsters (the Bible refers to this practice as ‘gleaning’). In fact, it is at least two families (plus their extended families and friends) who find enough food from a few weekly visits to a single dumpster behind a very small grocery store that belongs to a modest chain of stores. Breads, grains, meats, cheeses, greens, vegetables, and even coffee and chocolates are a regular part of their haul. I scammed some lunch from them during a visit to the zoo a couple of weeks ago, and I’m still salivating over the artisinal cheeses, crackers, veggies, meats, and sweets that we enjoyed. If we live in a world of scarcity, I’m wondering if it’s not a world of our own making.

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One Response to “Scarcity and Abundance”

  1. *sigh* — I’m sure my friends (and, eventually, new friends who are also friends-of-friends) grow tired of my preaching the gospel of Burning Man, but here I go again.

    This crazy festival in the desert thrives on abundance-over-scarcity. It’s manipulated to exist by two rules (of the “10 Principles of Burning Man”): plan to be completely self-sufficient, and “no commerce”. By planning to be self-sufficient, you tend to bring more than you need — in case, perhaps, you need to stay longer than you plan to. In place of exchanging goods-and-services (barter) or using money, a gift economy is set up where people (optionally) share resources with one another.

    There are a lot of nuances to the whole thing — see my original blog entry when I came back the first time. One thing I didn’t mention in that post is that economic systems only function when there is at least “enough” if not abundance — when there is true scarcity, all rules of civil society are out-the-window. (I.e. if you truly did not have enough food, would you share your last bread with a stranger or your children?, and what if push came to shove — what then? Thankfully you can do this as a thought experiment …) And another thing I didn’t mention: a gift economy makes one acutely aware of the abundance there is whereas other economic systems try to obscure it.

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