Scarcity: A History from the Origins of Capitalism to the Climate Crisis
by Fredrik Albritton Jonsson and Carl Wennerlind
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.
The Invention of Scarcity: Malthus and the Margins of History
by Deborah Valenze
A radical new reading of eighteenth-century British theorist Thomas Robert Malthus, which recovers diverse ideas about subsistence production and environments later eclipsed by classical economics
With the publication of Essay on the Principle of Population and its projection of food shortages in the face of ballooning populations, British theorist Thomas Robert Malthus secured a leading role in modern political and economic thought. In this startling new interpretation, Deborah Valenze reveals how canonical readings of Malthus fail to acknowledge the theorist’s remarkably narrow understanding of what constitutes food production.
Valenze returns to the eighteenth-century contexts that generated his arguments, showing how Malthus mobilized a redemptive narrative of British historical development and dismissed the varied ways that people adapted to the challenges of subsistence needs. In an argument that combines history, anthropology, food studies, and animal studies, she redirects our attention to the margins of Malthus’s essay, where activities such as hunting, gathering, herding, and gardening were rendered extraneous. She demonstrates how Malthus’s omissions and his subsequent canonization provided a rationale for colonial imposition of British agricultural models, regardless of environmental diversity.
By broadening our conception of human livelihoods, Valenze suggests pathways to resistance against the hegemony of Malthusian political economy. The Invention of Scarcity invites us to imagine a world where monoculture is in retreat and the margins are recentered as spaces of experimentation, nimbleness, and human flourishing.
This event will be in person at the Heyman Center and livestreamed online. Please register for both in-person and virtual attendance via the link. Registration is mandatory for in-person attendance.
Please email [email protected]a.edu to request disability accommodations. Advance notice is necessary to arrange for some accessibility needs.
The event is co-sponsored by the British History University Seminar.
About the Authors
Deborah Valenze is the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of History at Barnard College. A recipient of numerous fellowships, she has written four previous books on British culture and economic life. Professor Valenze has taught courses on the history of Europe since the Renaissance, Britain since 1600, women and revolution, European poverty, and food. Her research and scholarship have been supported by the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Yale Center for British Art, the Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College, and the American Association of University Women. She has also received a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship.
Carl Wennerlind is a Professor of History at Barnard College, where he specializes in the history of early modern Europe, with a focus on intellectual history and political economy. He is particularly interested in the historical development of ideas about money and credit; ideas on the relationship between economy and nature; and ideas about "improvement" and "modernization." 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.
Fredrik Albritton Jonsson is an 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.
About the Speakers
Alyssa Battistoni is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Barnard College. She is a political theorist with research interests in environmental and climate politics, feminism, Marxist thought, political economy, and the history of political thought. She is the co-author, with Kate Aronoff, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos, of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal (Verso 2019)
James Stafford is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Columbia University. He specializes in the political and intellectual history of Ireland, Britain and Western Europe since 1750, with a particular interest in questions of political economy and international order. The Case of Ireland, his first book, offers a fresh account of Ireland’s place in European debates about commerce and empire during a global era of war and revolution.