DifferenTakes #43: Colonizing the Future:"Scarcity" as Political Strategy Print E-mail


*DifferenTakes* is an investigative series of issue papers, published by the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College, providing alternative information and analysis on a wide range of reproductive rights, population, environment and social justice issues.

We are pleased to send you our latest issue, *"Colonizing the Future: "Scarcity" as Political Strategy" *by *The Corner House*. In this issue, the authors reveal how in the face of contrary evidence,
population control advocates are shifting their focus from claiming that human numbers are the cause of past and present scarcity to asserting that population growth will be the cause of absolute scarcity inthe future..

- Betsy Hartmann and Amy Oliver
Co-editors, DifferenTakes

* Available soon at:

Colonizing the Future:"Scarcity" as Political Strategy

by The Corner House

A Publication of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College . No. 43 . Fall 2006

The past is consumed in the present and the present lives only to bring forth the future. --- James Joyce1

Tomorrow belongs . . . Tomorrow belongs . . . Tomorrow belongs to me! --- Chorus, Nazi drinking song, Cabaret2

A preoccupation with the future not only prevents us from seeing the present as it is but often prompts us to rearrange the past. --- Eric Hoffer3

Whenever global environmental crises, Third World poverty or world hunger are at issue, economists, demographers, planners, corporate financiers, and political pundits (at least in the North) have frequently invoked human numbers, whether gratuitously, cynically or for the most part subliminally. Reports on the economy and politics of Southern countries --- invariably the "problem" of population is deemed a Southern problem --- have begun by citing population figures, even though these may have little or no relevance to what follows. But the figures once cited frame the subsequent discussion, skewing the identification of both problems and solutions. The message remains the same: too many people.

Such Malthusian images and thinking --- too many people outstripping supply --- have not gone unchallenged, however. On the contrary, meticulous political attention to what is actually happening on the ground has invariably located the causes of hunger not in an absolute scarcity --- no food at all --- but in socially-generated scarcity --- not enough food for some people in some places because other people have the power to deny others access to food, land and water.

Such power imbalances lie at the root of the manufactured scarcity that is the hallmark of food poverty, whether yesterday's or today's. An incomplete list of such imbalances might include: the enclosure of commons, lack of access to land, unequal gender relations, ethnic and racial discrimination, sexism, intra-household inequalities, denial of human rights, the political exploitation of famine, agriculturalmodernization, market liberalization, and ecological degradation.

Rooting deprivation firmly and squarely in power relations provides proof --- if proof was needed --- that no matter how much food is produced or water harnessed, how few babies are born or how dramatically human numbers fall, it is the nature of inequity remorselessly to generate "scarcity." Without changes in the social and economic relationships that currently determine the production, distribution and consumption of food and water, there will always be those who are judged "surplus to requirements" and who are thus excluded from the wherewithal to live. The human population could be halved, quartered, decimated even, yet hunger would still remain. So long as one person has the power to deny food to another, even two people may be judged "too many."

One result of detailed sociological studies showing that neither the historical record nor contemporary realities support the view that the numbers of people per se are responsible for scarcity is that fewer and fewer institutions now suggest that today's or yesterday's crises are caused by population growth. Even former bastions of Malthusianism, such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization or the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), now acknowledge that politics rather than too many people lies at the heart of continuing famine and malnutrition. As Eugenio Díaz and Sherman Robinson of IFPRI note:

"Providing an adequate aggregate food supply will not eliminate malnutrition and hunger, now or in the future . . . To achieve food security for the entire world population, countries must work to reduce poverty and achieve a more equitable distribution of income."4

But this does not mean that the political use of scarcity has been abandoned---far from it. Neo- Malthusians are increasingly shifting their focus from claiming that human numbers are the cause of past or present scarcity to asserting that population growth will be the cause of absolute scarcity in the future.

The marketing of genetically-modified crops is illustrative, and its messaging resolutely future-oriented. The predicted millions of yet unborn 'extra mouths to feed,' (primarily dark-skinned ones, of course), are used first to establish a foothold for genetically engineered agriculture as a "partial solution" to world hunger --- and then to expand that foothold by smothering discussion of any other alternatives, particularly any redistribution of wealth or power. As a promoter of biotechnology states:

"How do we feed a growing population --- which some estimate will reach 9 billion in the next 30 years --- when most arable land on the planet is already under cultivation? . . . Modern biotechnology is part of the answer. Modern biotechnology is not a panacea, but it can help make a difference in the fight against hunger and poverty. Using this new technology, we can feed hungry children, raise incomes, fight disease and protect the environment."5

The structural causes of hunger are now acknowledged, but they are dealt with solely in the context of the present. The future is used to thrust them into the background, casting them as petty distractions of purely academic interest compared to the overwhelming task of boosting future food production. This persuasive power of the future to depoliticize the debate on food poverty and to channel decision making towards a genetically-engineered future is evident in a report from the UK's influential Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which briefly considers redistribution as an option for addressing hunger --- but then summarily dismisses it as infeasible:

"Political difficulties of redistribution within, let alone among, countries are huge. Logistical problems and costs of food distribution also militate against sole reliance on redistributing income (i.e. demand for food) to meet present, let alone future, needs arising from increasing populations in less developed countries . . . What is required is a major increase in support for GM [genetically-modified] crop research and outreach directed at employment-intensive production of food staples within developing countries."6

In the process, questions over the very real role that genetically-engineered agriculture will play in exacerbating the structural causes of hunger --- not least through the privatization of seeds --- are effectively side-stepped.

Other future threats to environment and society are similarly being used to colonize the future and thereby capture the present. In climate change debates, for example, the talk is of future teeming numbers of Chinese and Indians causing whole cities to be lost to flooding through their greenhouse gas emissions --- unless Northern companies are granted property rights in the atmosphere through carbon-trading schemes to continue their own pollution.7

In regards to water, the World Commission on Water for the 21st Century readily conceded in its 2001 report, Vision 21, that current water scarcities do not lie in absolute shortage --- but it went on to argue that future population growth will lead to generalized water scarcity. What the Commission terms the "gloomy arithmetic"8 of future thirsty slum dwellers will condemn us to water wars, unless market discipline and privatization are brought to water use through water pricing:

"Without full-cost pricing the present vicious cycle of waste, inefficiency, and lack of service for the poor will continue. There will be little investment from the private sector, services will be of poor quality and rationed, and there will be little left for investing in water quality and other environmental improvement."9

The Commission's analysis has since been debunked by a succession of reports, most recently by the United Nations Development Program.10 But the "war-room" mentality generated by such predictions of future scarcity-driven apocalypses diverts attention away from the awkward social and environmental histories of discredited policies and projects such as large-scale dams, nuclear power stations and genetically-modified agriculture. We are now told that these are the only ways to meet globally aggregated predictions of supposedly climate-friendly energy demand or food needs.

Such seems to be the power of "scarcity" to colonize the future that even those who ascribe today's scarcities to political conflict frequently set aside the insights of political economy in favor of human numbers as an explanation for future shortages.

In doing so, they grant Malthusianism an explanatory power that they would actively deny to it when applied to the present and the past. Instead of the past being a guide to future action, the future (implausibly) becomes a guide to the present. As the 20th century futurologist Herman Kahn (reputedly the model for Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove) stated, "Anyone can learn from the past. These days it is more essential to learn from the future."11 The dictum that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"12 is jettisoned in favor of the ungrounded, and thus politically even more malleable, exercise of "learning from the future." In the process, "scarcity" is rehabilitated. Removed from the messy political realities of the present, it regains its authority as an abstract model, redeploying its mesmerizing powers over those who would privilege theory over lived experience.

Yet future crises are likely to be rooted in the same dynamics in which they are rooted today: political conflict, exploitative distributive institutions, sexism, racism, human rights abuses and environmentallydestructive practices. If society wants to prepare for future resource crises (and there surely will be future scarcity of one kind or another), it would be more prudent to look to the present rather than to some theoretical model of the future. As the future will grow out of the present, a better way of dealing with "future crisis" is not imagining a future Malthusian world that bears no relationship to what exists now or ever has existed, and then imagining how to stave off that hypothetical Malthusian destiny, but rather dealing with current scarcities now on the realistic assumption that what causes scarcity today is going to go on causing scarcity in the future.

Denying Malthusianism a refuge in the future is of critical importance if the past is not destined to be repeated and the present forgotten. But it is also important if "scarcity" is to be marginalized as a political strategy for diverting attention from the root causes of hunger, environmental degradation, conflict and the like.

Indeed, "scarcity," as used in modern economics, is best approached as an endlessly malleable means of legitimizing a particular set of social and political relationships, institutions and policies and of blocking inquiry, rather than as a theory that stands or falls on its ability not only to explain but also to predict. Empirical evidence, coupled with political organizing around other explanations for manufactured scarcity, may temporarily deny political space to those who would use scarcity as a strategy in one arena. But it does not, and will not, prevent its proponents from using it in other arenas where its power has not been weakened --- yet. So long as it remains useful as a means of diverting attention from causes of poverty that might implicate the powerful, it will be recast, adapted and re-used whenever and wherever possible, regardless of the empirical evidence that is built up to counter it.

For granting Malthusianism a space in the future is one of the principle everyday actions through which scarcity-terrorized thinking --- and the power relations and activities that it helps to support --- are reproduced, rejuvenated and allowed (even when debunked by practical experience) to return to haunt the present.

*The Corner House* is a research and solidarity group based in the United Kingdom that aims to support democratic and community movements for environmental and social justice. This piece evolved from a collaborative project with the Women's Global Network for Reproductive Rights to analyze the continuing power of Malthusian thinking. www.thecornerhouse.uk.org.

The Population and Development Program
CLPP . Hampshire College . Amherst . MA 01002
413.559.5506 . http://popdev.hampshire.edu
Opinions expressed in this publication are those of
the individual authors unless otherwise specified.


1. J. Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1916.
2. Cabaret, film directed by Bob Fosse, script by Christopher Isherwood and John VanDruten (1972).
3. Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind (New York: Harper and Row, 1954).
4. Eugenio Díaz and Sherman Robinson, "Biotechnology, Trade and Hunger," Biotechnology and Genetic Resource Policies, Brief 2, IFPRI, (Jan 2003), http://www..ifpri.org/pubs/rag/br1001/biotechbr2.pdf.
5. Testimony of David Sandalow, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, to the Subcommittee on International Economic Policy, Export and Trade Promotion of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Washington, DC, (July 12, 2000), http://bogota.usembassy.gov/wwwse507.shtml.
6. Nuffield Council on Bioethics, Genetically Modified Crops: The Ethical and Social Issues, (1999), paras 4.8, 4.10, http://www.nuffieldbioethics.org/go/ourwork/gmcrops/publication_301.html.
7. Larry Lohmann (ed), Carbon Trading: A Critical Conversation on Climate Change, Privatisation and Power, Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, the Durban Group for Climate Justice, and The Corner House, (2006).
8. World Commission on Water for the 21st Century, A Water Secure World: Vision for Water, Life and the Environment, (2000), 15.
9. Ibid, 35.
10. UNDP, Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis, Human Development Report 2006, available at http://hdr.undp.org/hdr2006/.
11. Herman Kahn, quoted in VaTech Hydro, Annual Report 2001, 33, http://www.vatech.at.
12. George Santayana, The Life of Reason (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1998).