Abundance or Scarcity: Which is it?

Do we live in a world of abundance or a world of scarcity? The economic world is a world of scarcity. The economy is a means of allocating “scarce” resources among competing uses or ends. Scarcity means there is not enough for everyone to have all of everything they need or want. The natural world is a world of abundance. The bounty of nature is enough for everyone to have all of everything they need. The challenge is learning to share so that everyone’s needs are met.


The ultimate end or goal of economics is to meet the needs and wants of people as consumers. The resources used to produce things of economic value to people include land, labor, and capital. Economists accept the premise that the needs and wants of consumers are insatiable, meaning we can never have “enough.” So, there will never be enough resources to allow us to completely satisfy our needs and wants. We are destined to live in a world of unending scarcity.


Those who see a world of abundance have a more inclusive and holistic view of the world. We are not simply consumers; we are spiritual, ecological, social, and economic beings. In this world, our economic wants are tempered by our need to care and be cared about, to love and be loved; we are social and ethical beings. Our economic wants are tempered by the realization that our well-being is inseparable from the well-being of others, including all of the other things of nature; we are ecological beings. Our authentic human needs are satiable and our wants are limited by our need to share with others.


Nature has endowed us with more than enough resources to meet our authentic human needs. We have more than enough to fulfill our responsibilities and realize our rewards as both members and caretakers of the earth’s integral community. In other words, we have more than enough land, labor, and capital to fulfill our purpose for being and thus to flourish in a world of abundance.


The fundamental differences in these two views of the world arise from differences in perspectives. The economic perspective is that of the individual. Obviously, specific individuals in specific situations do not have enough, even to meet their most basic needs. These individuals are living with the reality of scarcity in a world of abundance. Also, many resources that could have been used to satisfy needs are instead being used to create new wants: persuasive advertising, needless style changes, superficial innovations, and planned obsolesce—think “I-phones.” The minds of consumers are being manipulated to create individual wants that take priority over other peoples’ needs.

Nothing has “economic value” unless it is scarce. This provides a powerful economic incentive to create insatiable scarcity rather than satisfy satiable human needs. As long as anything is freely available to everyone, such as air, it has no economic value—even if it is absolutely essential to human life. As long as land was freely accessible to anyone who chose to use it, land had no economic value. And as long as people were willing to work together to meet the needs of all in their tribes, village, or communities, labor had no economic value.

As I have written before, early economists convinced people in parts of Europe that land would be used more efficiently in meeting their needs if the land had economic value rather being freely available to all. The “tragedy of the commons” is a classic story about how farmers would over-graze and destroy the productivity of pastures if lands were freely available for grazing. If the common lands were “enclosed,” meaning divided among individuals who would have exclusive use of their particular parcel, the land “owners” would have an incentive to preserve the productivity of their land. Many economists still ignore the possibility and reality that the farmers could, and many still do, decide among themselves how best to use the commons without dividing it and allowing the markets to determine its use.

Once land was removed from the commons or “privatized,” parcels could be bought and sold. This allowed those who were able to use the land more efficiently to buy and farm more of the land, thus increasing the economic efficiency of land use. Land then became scarce, because as some farmers acquired more land, others were left without enough. Privatizing common land necessitated privatizing labor, because those left without enough land now had to work for someone else to earn money to buy food and the other things they had previously produced. Money or capital acquired its economic value as a claim to the products of scarce land and labor.

The emergence of markets allowed land, labor, and capital to be allocated to their most valuable economic uses. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time, and many still defend it. However, the privatization of the commons was and remains the fundamental cause of human hunger and malnutrition. Privatization of other essentials of human well-being—such as housing, clothing, health care, education, and transportation—is the fundamental cause of poverty, deprivation, and social inequity. Privatization of natural resources—soil, minerals, petroleum, water, forests, wildlife—is the primary motivation for ecological degradation and destruction and the primary threat to the future of human life on earth. Markets work fine for those who are capable of earning more than enough money to meet our basic needs. Market economies will never ensure that everyone has enough to meet their basic human needs.

Most societies recognize that all people are endowed with equal inherent worth. However, we are inherently unequal in our ability to produce things that are scarce and thus have economic value. We have different abilities, aptitudes, and sociocultural environments that limit our economic opportunities in life—at birth and throughout life. However, empathy, sympathy, charity, respect, caring, compassion, integrity, and love; these basic human values have no limits or bounds. They are abundant and freely available to anyone who is willing to share them with others. Air, water, earth, energy, and other things of the earth; while finite in quantity, are sufficiently abundant to meet the needs of the earth’s integral community, including humanity—if we were willing to share. The earth has an abundance of resources to meet the needs of future generations—but we of this generation must share by limiting what we use or degrade today.


Abundance or scarcity? Which is it? It’s both! Many people live in a world of scarcity, but scarcity has been created within a world of abundance. There would be plenty of everything to meet the basic needs of everyone if we were only willing to share the abundance.


John Ikerd