How do we talk about resource limits, fair shares and development?

July 22, 2011

     By Duncan Green     

Evans coverFascinating morning earlier this week discussing Alex Evans’ new paper for WWF and Oxfam on ‘Resource Scarcity, fair shares and development’. Alex summarizes the paper in the Guardian, so I won’t rehearse his arguments for adding ‘fair shares’ to the more accepted topics of responding to resource scarcity by increasing production and strengthening resilience. Instead, here are some reflections coming out of the discussion + paper. First, language is a minefield on this topic – taboos and neuralgic issues are everywhere. On the left, ‘scarcity’ offends the Amartya Sen fundamentalists who insist that ‘there’s enough food/water etc and distributional justice is all that matters, (and always will be)’; on the right, any talk of ‘limits’ leads to accusations of neo-Malthusian scaremongering – ‘scarcity will lead to price rises, which in turn will send signals to the market to innovate or substitute for expensive resources, so relax and above all, avoid regulation!’ Whether explicitly or implicitly, both left and right assume away limits – the cake can go on growing forever. I caricature, but not much. The reaction from some of the government officials present on the question of limits was pretty discouraging. As one government rep at the meeting said, ‘even if limits are a subtext, the message is tainted. Zero sum games are just not attractive to politicians’. I ended up thinking that, in Europe at least, it may well be easier to talk about fair shares and distribution, than to broach the issues of resource limits. On a more positive note, Alex adds a nice twist in his paper by portraying the problem of scarcity as a transitional one. The world faces impending resource crunches on atmospheric space, water, land, energy etc. In the end, the price signals and technological responses, combined with a plateauing and then decline in world population, may well eventually respond, but only with time lags. In the meantime, we need to think about how to protect poor people who are likely to come off worst in world of resource limits – the ‘fair shares’ agenda. Second, I found myself wondering what an Andean peasant would make of all this talk of scarcity as if it is something new. We need to be clearer on the distinction between ‘new scarcity’ and ‘old scarcity’ and how they connect. Any poor person can talk to you about resource constraints – on water, land, energy etc and in many cases these are more immediately pressing than the ‘new scarcity’ produced by humanity approaching planetary boundaries. Old scarcity is local and political. New scarcity is both local and global, and has an absolute quality missing from old scarcity which, as Sen pointed out, is largely socially determined. Focussing exclusively on the global ‘new scarcity’ aspects would be a mistake – for example only talking about land in terms of land grabs by foreign investors, when in many cases the grabbers are local elites, and they have been doing it for centuries – this is just the latest price-driven twist in a long history. Linked to this point is the need for a clearer typology of scarcities. It might be helpful to think about scarcity as lying along at least two scarcity powerpointaxes: local to global in terms of where the responses are most effective, and in terms of the nature of the problem – public good to private good (i.e. whether the good can be privately owned like land, or is a common good, like air, or is somewhere in between, like water). Plotting this on a standard 2×2 matrix (see right for a very rough go at this) suggests that climate change/ limits to atmospheric space is the exception – most of the scarcities we are talking about are more local than global in their solutions, and more private than public in their nature. That suggests that we should be careful about lumping them all together or going too global, especially when it comes to solutions. Final point. While lumping them together may not be a good idea, comparisons certainly are – cross fertilization can throw up some interesting ideas. Is water scarcity best approached purely through building adaptation and resilience, or is there (learning from climate change) something equivalent to mitigation – cutting water use, at least at national level? Would a water or land equivalent of the International Energy Agency be worth thinking about? Parallels with other major crises also might be helpful – why are limits so hard to accept on the use of resources, when they are seen as common sense in financial management – time for some eco-Thatcherite ‘you can’t live beyond your means’ messaging? In teh same vein, there’s eco-bubbles, eco-meltdowns, but sadly no eco bailouts. And some weekend background viewing, a TED talk from Johan Rockstrom, the author of the ‘Planetary Boundaries’ concept – fascinating science and determinedly upbeat about the possibilities of survival if we act now. We could have done with him at the seminar……. [h/t Phil Bloomer] ]]>