The Problem of Scarcity

Submitted by dcook on March 9, 2012 - 4:35pm

“You don’t need another $400! You don’t need another big screen TV! Repent!”


It was the summer of 2006. The city had the feeling of one of those money machines at the Stampede where, if you have the lucky ticket, you get to stand in a wind tunnel for 5 minutes while money swirls around you and you get to keep as much of it as you can grab and hold on to. Calgary’s economy was growing so fast that it was skewing national economic indicators. People were moving here en masse. And the Provincial Government had just given everyone $400 each, just for being here.


Yet here was this street preacher, on the steps of City Hall, calling the place to repentance. The noon hour crowd mostly ignored him or thought him crazy. Yet, I remember him still, 6 years later, and I wonder if others who passed him that day do as well. Because, regardless of your understanding of repentance, I think he spoke a truth.


If ever there was a moment in time when money was to be had, surely it was then. Yet, there was something unsettling that people sensed, but few spoke about. In a poignant column from the time, Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid opined about a city changed by wealth.


“Wary of strangers, we rely too much on symbols to judge people. I often test this theory with the family cars. It proves true every time. When I drive the nice new vehicle, moms and dads smile cheerfully as they push the stroller through the intersection. But when I climb into the other car – the 1989 Volvo with 348,406 kilometers on the clock – the glares say I must be violating parole.”


Braid went on to write how, against the backdrop of social stress, there is a growing feeling of discontent, stating:


“This discontent ... is partly due to our gung-ho focus on getting things built. While we were busy excavating Glenmore Trail and driving LRT lines deep into the suburbs, somehow the city’s soul went sideways.”


Not only did the apparent wealth bring a discontent from a feeling of misplaced priorities, there was also the unspoken failure that many people quietly felt but never admitted to, as that wealth had seemingly passed them by. That year, people in the bottom fifth of Alberta’s income ladder spent 141% of their income, while the next two groups spent 116% and 111% respectively. In fact, 80% of the province was either just breaking even or falling behind, with 60% actually falling behind. Only the top 20% had any money left over at the end of the day.


That same year, a survey of Calgarians revealed that two-thirds were concerned about their level of stress, close to half were concerned about having too much debt or not being able to save for the future, while one-in-five were worried about not having enough money to put food on the table. Despite the most massive economic boom the city has ever seen, the poverty rate had barely budged from five years prior. If not now, when?


Such is the paradox of our economy. Our economic system is founded simultaneously on the contradictory notions of both scarcity and unlimited growth. We are told that our needs are unlimited but our resources are limited. Yet, if resources are limited, how is unlimited growth possible? And if we truly have an unlimited potential for growth, how are we to reconcile that with scarcity? In fact, we have a false scarcity. In their song “Driven to Tears”, the rock band The Police once famously sang “Too many cameras and not enough food, this is what we’ve seen.” For what often becomes scarce are those things that are the most important, while what is essentially superfluous is produced in abundance.


At its most basic level, poverty is about this scarcity. Scarcity not only of money, but also of time, food, housing, services, information, and connections with the community you are a part of. Scarcity limits choice, drives price and constrains availability, and ultimately creates “haves” and “have-nots”. In our society, this frames the debate about poverty as a zero sum game, with an artificial “poverty line” running down the middle of the field. If I have and you have not, allowing you to have will necessarily take something away from me. We become locked in a competitive game whose principles include control and fear – a fear that drives us to accumulate to ensure that we stay on our side of the poverty line; a fear that divides neighbours and communities.


Poverty is insidious. It defines you by you what you lack, not by what you are. This may be the reason many people living in conditions others would consider to be poverty, never think of, or define themselves, as poor. Yet in truth, poverty is just the far end of a continuum that we are all on, one that defines us all by what we lack. In a society that defines us as “consumers” or “taxpayers” rather than community members or citizens, we spend our time in the wind tunnel grabbing for money or things, yet never are satisfied and the fear never abates.


In this environment, we all experience this scarcity. Commuters, and those of us working long hours and multiple jobs experience the scarcity of time. Our communities experience a scarcity of amenities and space. There is a scarcity of housing and food which drives up the price for all of us and keeps us all on the same treadmill.


What if we were to imagine a community that was not built on scarcity? What if we accepted a premise that is contradictory to our current economic system? What if we realize that we live in a community where resources are unlimited and needs in fact are limited? What if we realized that we do, in fact, have enough? As individuals. As a community. As a society.


Certainly, if we are to accept the premise of perpetual economic growth, we have to also accept the premise of abundance: we have enough. In a world where there is enough, could we start to overcome the scarcity-driven fear that divides us? Could we alleviate the stress that drives us all and robs our families and communities of our creative energy and time? Could we come to see the poverty that resides in each of us and rebuild ourselves, our families and our neighbourhoods on the shared strengths that we all have to contribute?


So, as we grapple with the wicked question of poverty, we must begin to see that it is more than a simple dividing line between “the poor” and the rest of us. We are all placed somewhere on the continuum and the forces that drive poverty are the same ones that rob each of us of what we all ultimately want in our lives. Let us think, then, not about how we take from one to give to another. Rather, let’s examine and think about where scarcity is to be found, and where is abundance; in your life; in your community.


And most importantly, what could we do to increase the abundance in our lives and in our communities? In this scenario, we all grow more resilient and whole as we solve the poverty within us all. Perhaps then we may have a city known for more than just its jobs and money. This may just be what repentance looks like.