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

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]

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Comments

3 Responses to “How do we talk about resource limits, fair shares and development?”
  1. Ines

    Duncan,
    Alex’s paper definitively does lots of nice twists…but in all the twisting something is sadly lost.
    Fairness, needs , in-country inequality and not a wisper of women? I am sure I don’t need to repeat the familiar lithany of ways in which womens’ access to and grasp of any resource is not comparable to that of men, and the consequences of this for women themselves, economies and the planet. Even the first reccomendation in the paper (need for better data) is one that cries out for a gender perspective to it, as your blog pertinently has pointed out a few times!

  2. Sarah

    It was indeed a fascinating paper and seminar. I like your suggestions for a better distinction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ scarcity, and more probing to understand the differences / similarities between resources. A few thoughts, based on what I heard / didn’t hear at the seminar.
    1. “Limits”: Limits to what? My sense is that the bugbear with government is particularly about “limits to growth”, never an easy sell politically, and not necessarily “limits to resources”. In some areas, the government has accepted resource limits, at least in principle e.g. carbon budgets. The challenging part politically is “fair shares” – particularly in OECD countries.
    If resources are finite – and lots of people raised good questions about when, where and for which resources those limits kick in – more for the better off (i.e. the status quo), means less for the worst off. Yet the poorest populations desperately need to increase incomes and consumption, implying some kind of re-distribution, so they have their ‘fair share’. On market solutions to scarcity: of course there must also be a huge push for breakthroughs in technology and efficiency, so growth is de-coupled from resource use as far as possible. But I saw quite a few nodding heads to the warning that those massive breakthroughs may not come soon enough (if at all?) to avoid a very turbulent transition as scarcity starts to bite, with the most risks for the world’s poorest. A message seemed to be: fairness matters in the transition, as an absolute minimum.
    2. What do we mean by ‘fair share’? Terms matter hugely, and I’m not sure we got very far in defining this. Alex’s sets out some options e.g. the ‘minimalist’ (e.g. meeting basic needs through food aid) vs maximalist approach (e.g. equal share of carbon space). The climateers helpfully warned us that fairness has become an elite conversation of policy wonks, loaded with jargon and with limited political purchase (at least in rich countries). Others highlighted the public dimension: for instance, joe public might have quite different understandings of fairness than activists: what about people’s sense of “just deserts” to resources, earned through their greater economic and technological prowess. In my own head it felt like we were fudging ‘equity’, with ‘fair shares’ at times. Equity is necessary, but very broad – it could cover everything from investing in food reserves to cope with supply shocks to upholding women’s land titles. Fair shares is different, as it embodies this specific question of limits.
    3. Third and final thought: alternative narratives to ‘fair shares’. There were lots of suggestions of more politically palatable framings, like “green growth” or “resilience”. These are very helpful, particularly on the scarcity side. But are they sufficient from fairness perspective? I was struck by what some campaigners said about the dilemma of, on the one hand going for a Stern-style emphasis on the economic opportunities/costs as a way to bring in Finance ministries and business. But on the other, the danger that by only emphasising the ‘win-wins’, the scary and difficult stuff is swept under the carpet? What are the risks of not talking about fair shares, in terms of conflict, the rise of political extremism and of course equity for future generations? One suggestion for a positive framing which does imply limits and fairness was: a ‘safe operating space, in which rights and freedoms can be enjoyed’. Someone else made an interesting parallel with financial markets. If they now accept there is a ‘safe operating space’, in terms of levels of borrowing necessary to preserve the stability, economic health and well-being of populations, could finance ministries accept the same for natural resources? It might not nail the fair shares issue, but it could be one step closer.

  3. Joymalya Chakraborty

    Scarcity cycling up resulting improper distribution ; vice versa , is the stop gap itself in between the Scarcity and Distribution , in between Old , New and to add a factor more the ” Carry Forward Factor” I think it differentiates the in-between Old Vs New on either of the two as above mentioned , where the transition itself has become an Industry itself with it’s pros and cons of course

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