10 Human Security and Resource Scarcity

Richard Plate

This chapter is adapted from the first edition of Human Security with minor edits and updates.

Learning Outcomes & Big Ideas

  • Explain traditional responses to resource scarcity, using your own examples.
  • Critique the assumption of infinite substitutability.
  • Explain how the tragedy of the commons works, using an example from your own experience.
  • Describe how the different types of social traps (ignorance, externality, time delay) conspire to prevent proactive policies to address resource scarcity.
  • Explain how complex systems differ from static or linear systems and what problems that difference causes for resource management.
  • Explain how resource capture and environmental marginalisation can give rise to violent conflict.
  • Describe how effective systems of governance can mange the drama of the commons and minimise the harm caused by social traps.


In this chapter we will examine the relationship between societies and the resources that support them from both an ecological and economic perspective. Societies tend not to address natural resource challenges until those challenges have evoked a crisis of some sort and here we will explore why people are not more proactive in the ways that they address matters of resource scarcity. These reasons include social dynamics, common psychological weaknesses, and a fundamental misunderstanding of the environmental systems that support us. We will explore how each of these reasons can be addressed so that societies are able to address resource challenges before human security is threatened. Perhaps most importantly, we will see that as a result of the social, economic, and ecological connections that now span the globe, failing to address resource challenges proactively will have significant global impacts on human security.

Chapter Overview

10.1 Introduction

10.2 Resource Scarcity Through the Ages

10.2.1 Geographical Expansion

10.2.2 Increased Procuring Efficiency

10.2.3 Substitution

10.3 Understanding Resource Scarcity

10.4 Tragedy of the Commons

10.5 Social Traps

10.5.1 Ignorance

10.5.2 Externality

10.5.3 Time Delay

10.6 Understanding Complex Systems

10.6.1 Dynamic Systems

10.6.2 Interconnectedness

10.7 Resource Scarcity and Conflict

10.8 Human Security in the Face of Resource Scarcity

10.8.1 Drama of the Commons

10.8.2 Overcoming Individual Traps

10.9 Case Studies in Water Scarcity

10.9.1 Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin

10.9.2 Mekong River Basin

Resources and References

Key Points

Extension Activities & Further Research

List of Terms

Suggested Reading


Media Attributions

10.1 Introduction

From the early 1900s, ecologists have understood the population of a species as typically developing according to the S-curve shown in Figure 10.1. Consider a population that, with abundant resources, can double in one reproduction cycle. Two individuals become four over the first cycle. Those four become eight over the second cycle. Note that in the first cycle only two individuals were added, while four were added in the same amount of time in the second cycle. As the doubling continues, the population will reach 16, 32, 64, 128 and so on. This rapid increase explains the first half of the S-curve in Figure 10.1, as it moves from very shallow to very steep increases. This rapid increase in population is called exponential growth.

Over time, population will increase until it levels off when it reaches the "carrying capacity."
Figure 10.1 Carrying capacity. S-curve model for growth of population.

According to this model, the population will continue to grow exponentially until it reaches the limits dictated by available resources (food, space, etc.). As the amount of available resources per individual declines — in other words, as resources become scarce — mortality rates increase and reproductive rates decrease, causing the population to level off at what ecologists call the “carrying capacity” of an ecosystem — the maximum population size that an ecosystem can support sustainably. Many have applied this same basic model to humans as well, pointing toward localized examples of resource scarcity as evidence that humans are subject to the same ecological realities observed in other species. This claim has proven controversial in part because of people’s general aversion to being lumped in with other species. Some argue that our ingenuity and adaptability as a species allows us to transcend ecological barriers that constrain other species. Indeed, human population dynamics have shown that the carrying capacity of an ecosystem (or of the global system) may not be as fixed as ecologists once assumed. We will return to this topic later, but first, let’s take a look at how earlier societies have addressed resource challenges.

Incidentally, the same S-shaped curve (or part of it, as of yet) is observed in plots of resource use over time, economic production, energy use, fertiliser consumption, transportation, communication, tourism, pollution, deforestation and other forms of land degradation. Those plots gave rise to the concept of the Great Acceleration (Steffen et al., 2015) that introduced the Anthropocene. The point is that while the population is growing exponentially, many of its activities do so as well. This even goes for plots per capita, at least temporarily! Sooner or later, however, limiting factors become operative, slowing the increase until an inflection point is passed and further slowing results in a plateau — or even a crash. Quite often those ‘limiting factors’ amount to resource scarcity.

10.2 Resource Scarcity Through the Ages

Dealing with the challenge of resource scarcity is nothing new in human history. Indeed, the history of humans can be seen largely as a series of responses to resource needs. Conventional methods for addressing these needs can be grouped into three major categories: geographical expansion, increased procuring efficiency and substitution.

10.2.1 Geographical Expansion

Of these three categories, geographical expansion is perhaps the easiest to visualize. If we are running out of resource ‘X’ here, then perhaps more ‘X’ is available over there. This logic sits at the heart of numerous wars and exploratory expeditions into uncharted areas. While expansion into new resource-rich areas can be observed in a number of different contexts, I will use the example of global fisheries. Archaeological evidence from Europe on the topic suggests that a shift in diet occurred around 1000 years ago from freshwater fish to marine species. In his book An Unnatural History of the Sea, Callum Roberts (2007) suggests this shift was due to a combination of a decrease in supply of freshwater fish due to declining environmental conditions of European rivers and the increased demand for fish.

Having significantly depleted stocks of freshwater fish, Europeans looked to the sea, and the sea provided. For example, early accounts of the Newfoundland cod fishery describe a sea “swarming with fish, which can be taken not only with the net, but in baskets let down with a stone, so that it sinks in the water” (quoted in Roberts, 2007, p. 33). Fish, however, were not the only plentiful source of meat. In the Caribbean Christopher Columbus and his crew saw sea turtle populations so large “that it seemed that the ships would run aground on them and were as if bathing in them” (quoted in Roberts, 2007, p. 63). Often these types of accounts are accompanied by statements regarding the impossibility of exhausting such abundant resources, but human appetites continually proved to be more than a match for the sea’s abundance. The Newfoundland cod fishery, which fuelled that region’s growth for centuries, collapsed in the 1990s and is still closed to commercial fishing. Sea turtles are now an uncommon sight in the Caribbean and most other places, as all species of sea turtles are listed as threatened, endangered, or critically endangered.

However, as each fishery collapsed, another was there to take its place. Ransom Myer and Boris Worm (2003) illustrated this pattern in modern times using commercial fishing catch data. They show that starting from the 1950s, periods of intensive fishing were followed by lower catch-per-unit-effort numbers (abbreviated CPUE, a common measure for the health of a fishery). As those numbers dropped, commercial fleets shifted to new fishing grounds, where CPUE figures were initially high. In time, the CPUE would decrease again, prompting commercial fleets again to shift to new richer waters. By the end of the Myer and Worms data set in the 1980s, commercial fishing fleets spanned the globe with no fisheries achieving the high yields seen in the 1950s.

10.2.2 Increased Procuring Efficiency

When a resource becomes harder to get, the typical response is to try to become better at getting it. In the second category of responses — increased procuring efficiency — decrease in a resource is met with improvements being made to methods used for acquiring those resources. Here again, fishing provides an excellent example. Fishing technology has seen many improvements since the days of rudimentary hooks at the ends of flaxen strings. Each technological advance — including the modern use of spotting planes and sonar for finding fish and mile-long lines baited with thousands of hooks for catching them — have enabled fishers to increase their fishing success even in the face of decreasing fish populations.

The same pattern can be seen in better detection and drilling capabilities of the oil industry. Estimates of available oil reserves increased from 635 billion barrels in 1973 to 1,148 billion barrels in 2003 (Watkins, 2006). These increases did not represent an actual increase of oil deposits within the Earth’s crust, but rather our increased ability to locate and access those deposits. In other words, an apparent scarcity of a resource can be addressed (at least temporarily) by improving our ability to find and obtain that resource.

10.2.3 Substitution

The last category of responses to scarcity is substitution. If we run out of a resource, we can often find a different resource that satisfies the same need. In a sense, we can view the early European shift from freshwater fish to marine species as an example of substitution. As freshwater species became unable to meet demand, fishers began to provide marine species, which could serve the same purpose. Modern fish substitutions make for some interesting marketing campaigns. For example, the spiny dogfish—a bottom-dwelling species of shark—was once considered a nuisance by fishers. Not only were they undesirable commercially, but they tore nets, stole bait, and even pilfered caught fish that were still on the hook. As populations of more valuable species declined, however, the spiny dogfish itself became the focus of a new commercial fishery, but since people might be reluctant to eat something called dogfish, the name was changed to the more palatable moniker, rock salmon.

These methods for dealing with scarcity have taken us far as a clever and adaptable species. However, there is a limit to their effectiveness. Eventually, we run out of new geographical areas to provide untapped resources and at some point the amount of available resources meet their physical limits. There are no more uncharted fisheries to be found and by most accounts the days of plentiful, low-cost oil are behind us (e.g. Campbell & Laherre, 1998; Hirsch, 2005; Owen et al., 2010). This leaves substitution, but as we shall see, there are some resources for which there are no adequate substitutes.

10.3 Understanding Resource Scarcity

So far, I have been using fishery and petroleum examples as if they were the same type of resource, but they actually represent two very different types: renewable and non-renewable, respectively. The petroleum that we take from the ground is not being replaced (at least not in a time scale relevant to human aspirations), and non-renewable resources like petroleum, no matter how slowly we use them, will eventually run out.[1] Thus renewable resources are resources that can be consumed at a rate that allows them to be replenished as quickly as they are consumed. For example, as long as people do not catch fish at a rate faster than the fish can reproduce, then the fishery is renewable and can be sustained indefinitely. Therefore, sustainably managing one’s natural resources requires reducing one’s dependence on non-renewable resources and limiting the exploitation of renewable resources to a level correspondent to the resource’s ability to replenish itself.

However, many economists argue that the scarcity of a resource should not be defined in material terms. Within neoclassical economics, still the dominant model among economists today, one views scarcity in terms of prices and costs. Material scarcity is only one of many factors affecting price. For example, if a natural resource becomes materially scarce, it becomes more difficult to obtain. One must drill deeper for less oil or fish longer for fewer fish. As a result, the costs associated with obtaining the resource (time, fuel, etc.) will increase, which will lead to an increase in the price of that resource. As that price increases, new economic possibilities emerge. For example, substitution of other, relatively cheaper resources becomes more attractive. From this perspective, as available petroleum deposits decline, the increased price of oil should simply provide a greater incentive to pursue other energy sources more aggressively.[2] Therefore, in a neoclassical economic sense, the material scarcity of a resource simply indicates a transition to something newer and perhaps better.

This traditional economic view of scarcity assumes infinite substitutability. That is, for material scarcity to have the rather minor effect on an economic system that many economists suggest, an alternative resource must always be available as a substitute for a materially scarce resource. Neoclassical economists place much confidence in the ability of future technological innovations to ensure that alternative resources are indeed always available when needed. Ecological economists do not view infinite substitutability as a valid assumption. More specifically, ecological economists argue that the limited supply of natural resources will and should place constraints on economic systems.

Neoclassical economists can indeed point to numerous technological innovations that have helped us to address potential resource shortages. The ‘green revolution’ in the mid-20th century has often been cited as a quintessential example of how preconceived limits can dissolve in the face of new technology. In the 1960s many believed that Thomas Malthus’ prediction (150 years earlier) that human population would eventually grow beyond its ability to feed itself was finally coming true. These fears, however, subsided as new agricultural techniques (including use of pesticides, irrigation, inorganic fertilizers, and new varieties of grains) greatly increased agricultural output. By the 1970s, instead of the predicted famine, food prices remained stable or even decreased.

Now, however, we can see that these agricultural gains came with a price. First, agricultural biodiversity decreased significantly. High agricultural diversity is seen by many as an effective hedge against agricultural collapse for the same reasons that bankers recommend a diversified investment portfolio. In a diverse agro-industry, if something happens to one crop (e.g. disease), other strains are still available. With the green revolution, however, farmers favoured the new varieties that responded best to heavy fertilizer loads. The fertilizer itself became a non-renewable resource, produced using an energy intensive process that requires natural gas as a raw material. Water demands by agriculture also increased greatly, creating a strain on water resources, and given the projected shortages of both fossil fuels and water, many are already calling for more sustainable agricultural methods. And finally, pesticides, while useful for increasing crop production, have in many cases resulted in environmental degradation and ecosystem failure, and have become a threat to human health.

In short, while the green revolution successfully staved off the impending food shortages of the 1960s, it led to a number of unsustainable practices that continue to today. Moreover, the high rates of population growth mean that we will once again be faced with a need for a green revolution, and this time it cannot depend upon fossil fuels. Certainly, technical innovation will play a major role in how we address contemporary resource challenges, but technical innovation does not imply a world without limits and learning to live within those limits will require far more than a technical solution. Managing limited resources requires managing our own behaviour, but as we shall see, living within our limits has proven to be an extraordinarily difficult task.[3]

10.4 Tragedy of the Commons

It is perhaps a sad sign that the most cited article in natural resource literature is one describing immanent failure at managing limited resources. Garret Hardin’s 1968 article “Tragedy of the commons” has become part of the parlance of our times, and the points Hardin raised are still the focal point of much discussion among academics and resource managers. In the article, Hardin describes how economically rational behaviour, at the individual level, can lead to the collapse of common pool resources, that is, resources that are open to exploitation by multiple users.[4] Contemporary examples include fisheries, forests, and the Earth’s atmosphere (in the context of greenhouse gases).

Hardin uses the illustration of cattle grazing on an open prairie to illustrate his point. Consider five herders, each with his own herd of cattle, sharing a common area for grazing. Since the grass is a renewable resource this situation can continue indefinitely as long as the rate of grazing does not exceed the grass’s growth rate. And naturally, if a rancher were to add an animal to his herd, the added animal would mean added pressure on the pasture, but since the pasture is shared by five herders the added costs (i.e. negative effects on the pasture) are split five ways, while the rancher who added the animal reaps all the added benefits (e.g. additional milk or meat). Thus, simple arithmetic tells the herder to add to his herd. Since each herder follows this same line of reasoning, each herder adds animals, and each added animal results in more pressure on the pasture. Eventually, the pasture becomes so damaged that it can provide only a small fraction of the benefits seen before the pressure increased.

This pattern, argued Hardin, will be followed in the context of any common pool resource. Even when the resource users are aware of this dynamic, avoiding a collapse is difficult. If one or two of the herders decides to forego extra animals in an effort to save the pasture, the life of the pasture might be extended, but as long as any of the herders continue to increase their herds, then eventual collapse is inevitable. Thus, a herder who is perfectly aware of the dynamics of the tragedy of the commons might not unreasonably decide to increase his herd while possible, taking what benefits he can before the resource collapses. This attitude has been seen in fishers who, knowing the fishery to be near collapse, continue to fish to draw as much income as they can before the end (see Carey, 1999).

It is worth dwelling on Hardin’s title for a moment. Hardin explained that he does not use the term tragedy to refer to how sad this situation is. Rather, he uses it in the context of what he calls (quoting Alfred Whitehead) “the remorseless working of things” (Hardin, 1968, p. 1244). In other words, the resource users are destined to collapse the resource, not because they are malicious or irrational, but because this is simply how common pool resources work. Others disagree with this conclusion, and we will discuss some additions and amendments scholars have made to these ideas. First, however, we will look at other barriers to the sustainable use of resources.

10.5 Social Traps

Shortly after Hardin’s article was published, John Platt published another more general look at collective behaviour with undesirable results. He titled the article “Social traps,” defining the term as situations “where men or organizations get themselves started in some direction or some set of relationships that later prove to be unpleasant or lethal and that they see no easy way to back out of or to avoid” (1973, p. 641). The common pattern here involves a lack of connection between the short-term or local effects of an action and its long-term, broad consequences. In much the way that a mouse falls victim to a trap due to its failure to look beyond the hunk of cheese toward the metal spring set to snap its spine, people often fail to look past immediate and local gain. Economist Robert Costanza has explored how these social traps work in the context of natural resources, and has identified several different types (1997), each of which will be discussed in turn.

10.5.1 Ignorance

The most straightforward of these traps is simple ignorance, and early fishers might very reasonably have pled ignorance regarding the effect that their actions would have on the fisheries that they caused to collapse.[5] In modern times, however, the ignorance trap is more commonly associated with the broad or long-term effects of industrial chemicals. For example, when chlorofluorocarbons were developed in the early 1900s, they were celebrated because they were useful as a refrigerant, as well as non-flammable and non-toxic to humans and decades passed before scientists realized the damage CFCs were doing to the ozone layer. In the context of resource use, however, the ignorance trap is less relevant and in most cases, scientists can predict the scarcity of a resource long before it occurs. Other traps, on the other hand, are less easily dispelled than the ignorance trap.

10.5.2 Externality

Externality is an economic term, referring to a cost or benefit of an action that is not felt by the actor. For example, an individual living on a river might be inclined to view that river as a convenient tool for disposing of waste. One could simply dump their waste in the river, and need not worry about it anymore. However, the waste is not truly gone. The dumper may not experience the negative effects of the waste in the river, but people living downstream from the dumping will. The Mississippi River, which flows over 2,500 miles through much of the United States including several large farming states, provides a useful example of the effects of externality traps. Over its long course, the Mississippi picks up nutrient runoff (from excessive fertilizer use) and carries those nutrients downstream. By the time the waters reach the Gulf of Mexico, the nutrient levels are high enough to cause a dead zone roughly the size of New Jersey. The term dead zone refers to an area in which oxygen levels in the water are too low to support most marine life. The Gulf of Mexico dead zone, one of the biggest in the world, now encompasses what was once a habitat that supported a productive shrimp fishery.

The term externality indicates that the effects of an action are not accounted for within the marketplace. In theory, if Person A was dumping waste into a river and negatively affecting Person B downstream, then the two parties might reach an agreement by which Person A compensate Person B. In reality, however, such agreements are quite complicated due both to the number of people involved (e.g. thousands living along the Mississippi River and near the dead zone) and the difficulty in placing an economic value on the damage done to the resources in question.

In the Mississippi River example, environmental degradation in the form of the dead zone has, among other things, decreased the supply of a natural resource. In other words, the externality trap plays an indirect role in resource scarcity. But this trap can play a direct role as well. The most common type of example points to the disparity between the rich and the poor and the resulting disparity between their ability to respond to resource scarcity. Put simply, those with more resources are better able to respond to resource scarcity than those with fewer resources. Consider the rise in the average price of gasoline in the United States. In 1999 the average price per gallon was $1.34. By 2008, the average had increased to $3.01 per gallon.[6] While still relatively low by global comparisons, the steep price increase was a shock for many. Those individuals with more expendable income, however, were better able to either absorb the higher fuel costs or to purchase more fuel efficient cars. For those individuals without expendable income, these options were not available.

A similar pattern can be seen globally. Karen Lock and co-workers observe that, “Between January 2006 and July 2008, global food prices rose by an average of 75%, causing an estimated 75 million additional people to become undernourished worldwide” (Lock et al., 2009, p. 269). As one might imagine, the wealthy were not among the 75 million additional undernourished people. In fact one of the factors contributing to the increase in food prices is the shift in diet in nations with growing economies. New wealth in places such as Brazil, India and China has caused a shift from plant-based diets to ones based on meat and dairy products, more resource intensive food sources. As a result, the demand for grains increased to support the meat industry. While those individuals still depending directly on grains for their diet were not a part of this shift, they were still affected by increased grain prices. Approximately three billion people spend over half of their income on food. For these people, “any price increase will at best lead to poorer quality diets and, at worst, increase rates of malnutrition” (Lock et al., 2009, p.  270).

This discussion has focused on individual behaviour, but the same patterns hold at broader scales as well. Developing countries are more susceptible to the stresses brought on by resource scarcity than industrial countries (Jonsson et al., 2019). In fact, often the measures taken by the wealthy to adapt to scarcity exacerbate the problem for the poor. When the wealthy perceive an immanent scarcity of a resource, the common response is to increase one’s own stocks, meaning that even less of that resource is available for others. Anyone who has prepared for a hurricane has likely witnessed the mad rush for bottled water and plywood that takes place due to the fears of an impending shortage of these resources. The conflicts that take place at local hardware stores or supermarkets during those times point to the types of conflicts than can occur between classes and even countries in the face of resource scarcity. Such hoarding behaviour is deeply ingrained in human behaviour. We will discuss these dynamics later in the chapter. For now, we will continue with the survey of social traps.

10.5.3 Time Delay

To understand the next social trap, ask yourself which of these you would rather have: a one hundred dollar bill, or a check for one hundred dollars post-dated one year from today. You would likely prefer the cash. In fact, you can carry the exercise further and ask whether your answer would change if the check were for $105? How about $120? By identifying the exact amount that would lead you to choose the check, you can find what economists call your discount rate. That is, your level of preference for immediate benefits over future ones.

We have good reasons for preferring immediate benefits. First, we cannot know what is going to happen in a year. You might lose the check, or the account might be closed. The safer choice is to take the immediate gain. However, our penchant for immediate gains goes far beyond what is reasonable. Most of us exhibit behaviour that can be rationalized only because of the time delay between the behaviour and its consequences. For example, excessive drinking would likely not be nearly as widespread among college students if the hangover were felt immediately upon drinking alcohol rather than the next day. Procrastinating with homework so that an entire paper must be written in one stress-filled night is another example. The benefits of not doing the work in a timely fashion seem to trump the stress and potentially decreased quality of work that are bound to come from rushing at the last minute.

In terms of natural resources, the benefits we receive now from unsustainable use of resources today means that those resources will not be available tomorrow for use by us or by future generations. Consider for a moment the ethics involved in caring for future generations. Most would agree that one’s access to resources should not be dictated by one’s race or gender, and in the same vein one might argue that access to resources should not be based on what period in time a person is born. Sustainable use of resources implies an ethical responsibility (intergenerational justice) to ensure that future generations have access to the same quality of life that we have today. If we accept the argument by environmental scientists and ecological economists—that human innovation will not be able to substitute for all the services currently provided by our natural resources and environmental systems—then our commitment to future generations will require learning to live within the limits set by the Earth’s environmental systems.

The time-delay trap, however, often causes logic like this to land on deaf ears. We have heard the adages about taking precautions in order to avoid future hardship. A stitch in time saves nine. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Still, our preference for immediate payoffs causes us to ignore such wisdom, and blind faith in future technological solutions represents a convenient way to rationalize such behaviour. As a result, we tend to address environmental challenges only after they have reached catastrophic proportions. Strict environmental regulations are rarely enacted proactively. Rather, they come after a fishery has collapsed or the majority of an area has become deforested.

Some see this behaviour as having deep psychological roots and B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) tried to explain why people exhibit unsustainable behaviour by making the distinction between knowing by acquaintance (i.e. learning through our own experience) and knowing by description (i.e. learning through someone else’s advice).[7] The former is far more powerful, and since we cannot know the future through experience, we tend not to focus on it. This is particularly true when predictions—including sound, scientifically-based predictions—involve information that we do not want to hear.


Fishing for Today, Not Tomorrow

A fishery is a renewable resource because the fish are able to replenish their numbers through reproduction. The rate of reproduction is dictated largely by the size of the population (Figure 10.2). When the population is relatively small, its growth rate is based on a percentage of its population. For example, a species might exhibit a growth rate of 10%, meaning that 100 individuals in the first year would grow to 110 individuals in the next, providing a net gain of ten individuals. A larger population, say 1000 individuals, would be able to produce a net gain of 100 individuals in that same period. In other words, the larger the population, the more individuals it is able to produce. This explains the shape of the left side of Figure 10.2. When a fish population is so large that its numbers are close to the maximum that can be supported by the environmental system, mortality increases due to lack of resources and the growth rate decreases as shown on the right side of Figure 10.2.

Most commercial fisheries are currently on the left side of this graph, meaning that a reduction in population size decrease the amount of fish that can be sustainably taken the following year.a Each year in which catch rates exceed sustainable limits further reduces the population’s ability to reproduce. If overfishing continues, then the population will eventually become too small to support any industry at all. Conversely, limiting current catch rates leads to greater sustainable catch rates in the future. Sustainable fishing requires restraint, taking fewer fish than we are able to take. However, as a result of the obstacles to sustainable behaviour discussed in this chapter, there is a strong tendency to catch fish at unsustainable rates, leaving little for future generations.

The UNFAO estimates that 52% of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited; 17% are over-exploited, meaning that the fish are being caught faster than they are reproducing; and seven percent are depleted, meaning that they can no longer support a commercial industry (FAO, 2006).


Reproduction accelerates until the population is no longer sustainable, so it starts to decrease.
Figure 10.2 Population dynamics in fisheries.

Psychologists use the term cognitive dissonance to explain the discomfort we feel when we hold contradicting beliefs (see Festinger, 1957). When we act in what we know to be an unsustainable manner, we may feel a sense of fear or guilt. To reduce the cognitive dissonance—and the accompanying emotional discomfort—we have two options: change the behaviour or change the belief that the behaviour is harmful to ourselves or others in the future. Often the first choice is taken, and people choose to behave in more sustainable ways (e.g. Aitken et al., 1994; Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002). However, changing one’s beliefs to fit one’s unsustainable behaviour is not uncommon. We often seek information that supports our behaviour and dismiss information that does not (e.g. Stoll-Kleemann et al., 2001; Kilbourne & Pickett, 2008). Indeed, psychologists have shown that we will even change the way we perceive physical reality in order to reduce cognitive dissonance (Balcetis & Dunning, 2007).[8] Nonetheless, we shall see that this strong psychological focus on the present can be overcome under the right circumstances.

10.6 Understanding Complex Systems

Social traps, such as the tragedy of the commons or time-delay, help to explain much of the unsustainable resource use currently taking place. Yet even without these traps, our fundamental misunderstanding of social, economic, and ecological systems tends to promote poor decision making and complacency regarding the natural systems that support us. The term social-ecological system is used to indicate the interactions between social, economic, and ecological systems. These systems are complex, meaning they are dynamic (rather than static) and characterized by web-like causal connections (rather than linear causal chains). Our failure to acknowledge and understand these characteristics causes us to be surprised by their unexpected behaviours. In this section, we will look at each of these characteristics of complexity.

10.6.1 Dynamic Systems

We tend to think of social-ecological systems as static systems that exhibit linear behaviour. A bicycle exhibits this behaviour. If you pedal at a certain rate, the bicycle will move at a corresponding speed. If you double your rate of pedalling, the bicycle will move at roughly twice the original speed. This is called a linear response. Now imagine a bicycle that would take off like a rocket if you doubled your pedalling rate or one that would some days barely respond to pedalling at all. This is closer to how complex systems behave. With a basic understanding of complex systems this behaviour can be explained and to a certain extent even predicted.

Erling Moxnes (2000) performed an interesting experiment to show how our inability to understand the dynamics of complex systems can contribute to the collapse of a resource. Moxnes designed a model of a fishery based on the population dynamics described in the textbox above. He then had study participants (including fishers and fishery managers) manage this simulated fishery. Each year a participant could decide whether or not to add a ship to the fishing fleet. The participant would then receive data regarding the number of fish caught that year and, based on that information, make a decision about adding another ship the following year.

Two characteristics about this exercise are relevant to our discussion of social traps. First, the simulated fishery was privately owned. Participants did not have to worry about someone else catching the fish that they left to reproduce. Second, the participants themselves were rewarded (i.e. paid) based on their success in running a sustainable fishery based on an infinite time horizon. In other words, the higher immediate payoff to the participants came if they were able to maintain a high reproductive rate in the fishery far into the future. By setting the game up this way, Moxnes effectively eliminated the potential for tragedy of the commons or time-delay traps, presumably taking away the most difficult aspects of managing real-world fisheries.

Despite these advantages, the median fleet size built by Moxnes’ participants was almost double the size required to maximize sustainable yield. Even without the social traps described above, the participants overfished their fisheries. Perhaps even more interesting than the participants’ poor performances were their responses to this and other similar simulations. Many were dubious of the results, suggesting an error in the model itself or attributing their performance to factors outside the parameters of the model (e.g. disease).

The difficulty for these participants stemmed from their assumption that the fishery was a static, rather than a dynamic system. Moxnes explains that the participants assumed there was a set rate of growth, say 1000 fish per year. They proceeded to increase their fleet size, assuming that a decrease in catch would indicate that they had found the growth rate. They did not realize that growth rate is a moving target, which decreases as the population size becomes smaller. By the time participants observed a decrease in catch, they had already decreased the population significantly, causing a severe reduction in the population’s ability to make more fish.

Moxnes’ findings apply to far more than fisheries. Social, economic, and ecological systems are all complex, dynamic systems. Because of our tendency to view these systems as static, we are consistently surprised by their behaviour in the same way that Moxnes’ participants were surprised by the response of the model. Consider, for example, the phenomenon of positive or reinforcing feedback, where a small change leads to bigger and bigger change. The build-up of nuclear arms during the Cold War is an oft-cited example. The United States developed a small arsenal of nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union, viewing this as a threat, developed their own arsenal in response. The United States viewed this response as a threat and added to their arsenal, and the Soviet Union behaved likewise. This cycle continued until the two countries had enough nuclear arms to blow up the Earth many times over—a situation that was costly and dangerous to both countries.

To see how reinforcing feedback works in the context of natural resources, we can return to the example of the green revolution. Scientists responded to the perceived threat of the human population becoming too large to feed by increasing our ability to produce food. Forgetting for the moment the objections raised regarding the agricultural methods used to increase food production, we can focus on the problem with the logic of this solution in a dynamic system. If the amount of food needed to feed the world population were a static figure (as is assumed in the slogan ‘feeding the world’), then increasing food supply alone would have indeed solved the problem. However, as we have seen with fish populations, population growth involves a complex and dynamic system.

The reinforcing loop that illustrates this pattern is shown in Figure 10.3. To understand the dynamics of the system, one must simply follow the arrows in the loop. Reproduction leads to an increase in population size, which leads to an increase in reproduction, which leads to an increase in population size. And on it goes round and round the loop. The result of this feedback loop in populations is the exponential growth described earlier in the chapter (Figure 10.4). This pattern of growth can be seen in populations of many species. However, reinforcing loops are constrained by a balancing loop. The growth of populations is typically constrained by available resources, as shown in the fishery example in Figure 10.2.

This pattern is basic ecology, but it was not a part of the solution offered by the green revolution. Increasing the global food supply further increased the global population. In the 1960s, people were worried about feeding a population of four billion. In the next few decades, we will be concerned about feeding a population of nine to 10 billion. In short, increasing food production made it possible to go around the reinforcing feedback loop of Figure 10.3 several more times, but it did not address the fundamental problem. A more holistic approach to the problem might have included measures for addressing population growth (e.g. family planning programmes). By choosing to limit our reproduction rates before we are forced to by resource constraints, we can address the root of the famine and suffering that the scientists of the green revolution intended to address.

Population size (number of individuals) and the reproduction rate (number of individuals per year) are in a feedback loop.
Figure 10.3 Reinforcing feedback. Population size (individuals) and reproduction rate (individuals per year).


Population size increases exponentially, with the curve angling upward over time.
Figure 10.4 Exponential growth. Population size over time.

10.6.2 Interconnectedness

In addition to being dynamic, complex systems are characterized by a high level of interdependence between parts. When we analyse a process, we tend to think in linear terms with series of events making causal chains, but in complex systems one cause can have many effects that move through a system. Ecologists often observe this type of behaviour, in which the loss of one species causes major changes to the entire system. For example, fishers, observing otters eating fish, used to view them as competitors for fish near a kelp forest. Now, however, scientists know that the absence of otters in a kelp forest system can lead to the loss of the entire forest, including the fish.

In terms of natural resources, particularly renewable resources, this interconnectivity can mean that activity regarding one resource leads to difficulties with others as well. We have already seen how activity in states along the Mississippi River affects resources in the Gulf of Mexico. Examples abound. One area that has received greater attention recently is the connection between coastal forests and marine systems. Each of these systems provides important resources and services. Only recently have resource managers looked closely at how these systems interact. For example, loss of coastal forests can significantly increase the amount of nutrients and sedimentation entering nearby coral reefs (Caddy & Bakun, 1994; Humborg et al., 2000). In short, scarcity in one resource can cause scarcity in others as well. In addition, environmental degradation taking place on a global scale (see Chapter 9 and Chapter 12) can cause severe reductions in available living resources.

10.7 Resource Scarcity and Conflict

So far, this chapter has focused on the barriers to addressing resource scarcity issues before they become major problems. In this section, we will look more closely at behaviours that people exhibit once resource scarcity has become a major problem. There is still much debate over the relationship between resource scarcity and violent conflict. Thomas Homer-Dixon argued that resource scarcity can often be a significant contributor to violent conflict, particularly in developing countries, which face “increasingly complex, fast-moving, and interacting environmental scarcities” (1999, p. 5). He describes two patterns of interaction in the face of scarcity.

One of these, is that “powerful groups within society – anticipating future shortages – shift resource distribution in their favour, subjecting the remaining population to scarcity” (Percival & Homer-Dixon, 1998, p. 280). This interaction is called ‘resource capture.’ As a result of this distribution shift, weaker groups are forced to migrate to ecologically sensitive areas, thereby increasing scarcity. This Homer-Dixon calls ecological marginalization. These interactions can result in “a self-reinforcing spiral of violence, institutional dysfunction, and social fragmentation” (Homer-Dixon, 1999, p. 5). These dynamics, predicts Homer-Dixon, are likely to lead to a future increase in violence as resource scarcity challenges become severe, particularly in combination with social injustice (Homer-Dixon, 2006).

Describing processes not unlike what Homer-Dixon depicts above, scholars cite resource scarcity as the primary cause for many recent conflicts, including the Sudanese civil war (Suliman, 1999) and Rwandan genocide (Diamond 2005) and others (Finsterbusch, 2002; Parenti, 2011). Others, however, argue that resource scarcity has rarely been a major contributor to violent conflict. Several quantitative studies have found little correlation between factors such as population density, deforestation, water scarcity and violent conflict (Esty et al., 1998; Theisen, 2008). They point to what they see as more significant factors contributing to violent conflict, including lack of education, poverty, and instability. Indeed, some even see the potential for positive impacts. When scarcity is addressed early, the need to manage a resource can have a unifying effect, encouraging cooperation between institutions or nations. Recognising non-negotiable environmental limits and adapting to them is an important component of resilience in the Anthropocene (Pirages & Cousins, 2005).

Disentangling the various components of conflicts and identifying their specific roles is a difficult task and continues to be the focus of much debate. Whatever one’s view is of the relationship between violent conflict and resource scarcity, experts agree that the resource challenges of the present and near future will test our systems of governance in new ways. The ability of these institutions to respond to new stresses plays a significant role, not only in the context of violent conflict, but also in the context of basic quality of life. In the next section, we will look at how to design institutions that can respond appropriately to contemporary resource challenges.

10.8 Human Security in the Face of Resource Scarcity

Much of the debate regarding resource scarcity and conflict focuses on localized shortages. Future natural resource challenges are likely to be felt much more broadly (Bretthauer, 2016; Pirages & Cousins, 2005). Ecologist C.S. Holling describes the situation like this:

Nature, people, and economies are suddenly now co-evolving on a planetary scale. Each is affecting the others in such novel ways and on such large scales that large surprises are being detected and posited that challenge traditional human modes of governance and management and that threaten to overwhelm the adaptive and innovative capabilities of people. (Holling, 1994, p. 81)

Note the focus here on “adaptive and innovative capabilities.” Holling’s primary concern is not with scarcity of resources per se, but with scarcity of possible responses to new challenges. In an ecosystem, responses to new changes become limited by loss of biodiversity. In a social system, response to change becomes limited when individuals lose creativity and institutions become overly rigid.

I am using the term institutions broadly here, referring to systems of governance on multiple scales. This includes national and local governments as well as less formal systems, including social norms and habits of interaction. In his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond (2005) describes several examples in which societies failed because they were unable to change their individual and/or collective behaviour in the face of changing environmental conditions. For example, he describes how Norse settlements in Greenland collapsed in the 15th century largely because of their reluctance to adopt foods and practices that better suited the resources and environmental conditions of Greenland. Of course, in today’s globalized world of social, economic and ecological interconnectivity the stakes have risen. Repeating the failures that Diamond illustrated on a local level can have much broader costs today (Bretthauer, 2016; Dawson et al., 2018). Avoiding those failures will require addressing the social traps discussed earlier in the chapter.

10.8.1 Drama of the Commons

It is worth noting that many of the thousands of articles and books that cite Hardin’s “Tragedy of the commons” disagree with his conclusions and suggest alternatives to the resource collapse that Hardin described. The dynamics of common pool resources that Hardin describes are indeed challenges, but they are not insurmountable obstacles. First, Hardin’s scenario comes about because the herders are all focused ona narrowly defined self-interest. In reality, people are quite capable of focusing on the collective good, and adjusting their behaviour accordingly. Cultural contingencies add to the variability. Moreover, people, aware of their tendencies toward narrow self-interest, are capable of developing and accepting a set of rules designed for the greater good of society. If only one of Hardin’s herders refrains from increasing his herd, then the resource will still collapse from the behaviour of the others acting in narrow self-interest. However, if all five herders agree to limit their herds, then the resource can be sustained.

Hardin’s critics have also pointed out that resource users typically do develop rules governing use of common resources (e.g. Berkes, 1985). Indeed, many argue that the ability to cooperate plays a strong role in selection of communities (e.g. Boyd & Richerson, 2009). In other words, cooperation within a community increased the ability of members within that community to survive. When one includes this broader spectrum of behaviour, the management of a common resource need not be tragic at all. Ostrom and coworkers (2002) prefer the term “drama of the commons” since common resource management involves a mixture of tragedy, comedy, and history. The question then becomes, “What systems of governance are best suited for addressing the drama of the commons”?

The answer to this question depends largely on the specifics of the resource and community in question. What works well for one community may fail miserably in another. [9] However, scholars have identified several key aspects of governance systems that increase the likelihood of a community to manage its resources sustainably. A fuller discussion of these will be offered in Chapter 20, but four of the most important characteristics are listed below.

The system must be responsive to the whole range of resource users. Excluding certain resource users from discussion of management can create ethical problems as well as practical ones. Maintaining a diversity of voices involved in the discussion can provide useful insights and innovative ideas.

The system must include institutions working together across scales. This means that local institutions must be able to coordinate with regional, national and global ones. Local institutions are often important sources of creativity and innovation, but the larger institutions are needed to coordinate efforts and implement new ideas. By working together, these institutions can combine their respective strengths (see Berkes, 2007).

The system must be adaptive. Environmental systems change continually. Governing systems must be able to perceive and respond to these changes. There are numerous examples where resource collapse came about largely due to the insistence of governing agencies to retain policies that no longer fit the circumstances (see Gunderson & Holling, 2001).

The system must earn the trust of the resource users. Resource decisions are often not win-win. They involve costly measures that can inflict hardships on resource users. Those sacrifices will be resisted unless the resource users are confident that the system of governance is fair and effective (Jonsson et al., 2019).

10.8.2 Overcoming Individual Traps

Of course, the tragedy of the commons is only one of the obstacles to sustainable use of resources discussed earlier in the chapter. Institutions with the characteristics described in the previous section will not succeed unless the other traps are addressed as well. For example, we must educate ourselves regarding natural resources. Scientific discoveries over the last several decades have illustrated numerous ways in which our actions affect the environmental systems that support us. We can no longer claim ignorance when fisheries collapse or vast areas become deforested. But to truly avoid the ignorance trap, the level of environmental literacy among the general public must increase.

A basic understanding of complex systems and of the intricate web of connections that now connect us globally must be considered part of environmental literacy. We can understand simple systems intuitively; when filling a glass of water, we know to stop pouring before the level reaches the top of the glass. The feedback of the increasing water level is clear, and we know the appropriate response. The behaviour of complex systems is not so straightforward. Imagine pouring that same glass of water blindfolded and without being able to control the flow from the pitcher. Such conditions would call for far more precaution if we still wish to avoid spilling. This latter scenario is closer to how complex systems behave. If more people understood this behaviour, or at least expected it, then policies that proactively address resource challenges would be more popular.[10]

Other traps, such as externality and time-delay, may require an ethical shift. Overcoming the externality trap requires taking responsibility for the effect of our actions on others. The fact that those others may be far away geographically does not relinquish us of those responsibilities. With time-delay, the ethical extension is not across space, but time. Supporting policies for sustainable use of resources requires overcoming our preference for immediate payoffs. Ensuring that our descendants have adequate access to resources often means using less for ourselves now. Whether we are concerned for our own future well-being, that of people living far away, of future generations, or even of other species, our decisions must go beyond immediate payoffs and incorporate a broader perspective. Our response to these types of personal challenges will in no small way shape the way that we respond collectively to the resource challenges of this century and beyond. Some directions for conducive ethical changes will be described in Chapter 11.

10.9 Case Studies in Water Scarcity

Typically, when people think of water scarcity, they think of deserts. This perception is not without reason. Many armed conflicts over access to water have indeed taken place in arid regions. One of the factors for the Arab-Israeli 1967 War was access to the Jordan River. Israeli Premier Levi Eshkol proclaimed, “water is a question of life for Israel,” explaining that “Israel would act to ensure that the waters continue to flow” (quoted in Gleick, 1993, p. 85). Similarly, many scholars cite disputes over the Nile River as an important example of the central role that water can play in inter-state conflicts in northern Africa (e.g. Homer-Dixon, 1994; El-Fadel et al., 2003; Kameri-Mbote, 2006). While these violent, international conflicts garner much attention, they do not represent the norm. Conflicts over water resources typically occur on local or regional scales rather than international ones, they rarely result in violent conflict, and they often occur in places that receive substantial rainfall. In this section, we will look at two case studies of conflicts due to water scarcity that are more representative of typical scarcity issues.

10.9.1 Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin

Our first case study illustrates howinstitutions can find themselves trapped in a situation that everyone agrees is unsustainable. In the United States, most people associate water scarcity conflicts with arid western states. However, Florida, Georgia and Alabama have found themselves in a hotly contested struggle over the waters of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River Basin. The ACF basin, which covers 12 million acres from Atlanta to the Gulf Coast of Florida, provides drinking water for Atlanta, hydro-electric power for Alabama, and prime natural habitat in Florida’s panhandle. In the 1980s a series of droughts combined with Atlanta’s growth made the limits of the ACF basin a matter of concern. Note the potential for an externality trap here. More pumping in Atlanta would mean that less water was available to produce electricity in Alabama and to maintain the important riverine ecosystems in Florida.

The three states involved in this conflict have made numerous attempts to develop a management plan on which all can agree. These attempts, mixed with numerous law suits and appeals, have now spanned more than two decades, and the dispute has still not been resolved. Water Law expert Robert Abrams attributes this stalemate to a misguided effort among those involved to find a “static, presently articulable, final result that will adequately ensure and properly prioritize the region’s most vital interests” (Abrams, 2008, p. 682). In other words, those involved in negotiations want to find an answer that will resolve this issue permanently and without the need for later adjustments. Such an approach not only makes it difficult for institutions to respond to current changes, but may also hamper institutions’ abilities to respond to changing conditions in the future. Moreover, the negotiators are holding steadfastly to their own positions, taking what Abrams calls “aggressive, jingoistic public positions that prevent candid, open-ended negotiations” (Abrams, 2008, p. 683).

Recall that adaptability and coordination between institutions from multiple scales (local, regional, and national) are two key attributes for a system of governance that can successfully manage the challenges of resource scarcity. While the three states are mired in this conflict, residents from each state cite negative economic and environmental impacts as a result of the status quo. In their efforts not to lose the negotiations, the state and federal institutions involved have missed opportunities to coordinate conservation and research efforts to find practical ways to address the water scarcity. The next step will likely be intervention by Congress, but there is no clear end to the dispute.

10.9.2 Mekong River Basin

Our second case study presents a much different approach. The Mekong River flows through or borders six countries in Southeast Asia. Coordination between these countries began in the 1950s when the Mekong River Basin (MRB) became the focus of a United Nations study on river basin planning. The lower Mekong nations — Cambodia, Laos, South Vietnam, and Thailand — adopted the UN report as the basis for development in the region and formed the Mekong Committee in 1957 with financial support from the United States, France and Japan. National Mekong committees were quickly formed and studies initiated on both physical and socio-economic impacts of potential developments within the basin. The international committee coordinated this work to ensure consistency in research methods throughout the MRB.

The Committee’s progress slowed in the 1960s in part due to the same type of competing goals described in the previous case study, but also due to the outbreak of war in the region. It is worth noting, however, that even during wartime, Committee members continued to share data and information on water resources and development. Indeed, scholars suggest that the scientific work done through the Committee contributed to regional security and positive international relations. An Interim Mekong Committee continued work after 1978, when Cambodia dropped out. In 1991 Cambodia was readmitted and negotiations began for the Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin. Adopted in 1995, this agreement lays out a set of rules guiding development in the MRB. It is considered a “milestone in international water resources management treaties due to its emphasis on joint development, ecological protection, and a dynamic process of water allocation” (Radosevich & Olson, 1999; quoted in Jacobs, 2002, p. 360).

Much of the success seen in the MRB management can be attributed to the factors described above. First, it represents coordination of efforts on local, national, and international scales. Projects are not considered individually, but as parts of a larger regional programme. This coordination includes assistance from the UN and international non-governmental organizations, providing expertise and support when needed. Second, the Mekong Agreement of 1995 provides enough flexibility for institutions to adapt to changing needs. It lays out guidelines for management rather than details regarding water allocation. And finally, as a result of the long history of cooperation in the management of the MRB, members can approach negotiations with a high level of trust and confidence in the long-term management of the region. Conflicts are not avoided, but they can be viewed in the context of this history, which creates an atmosphere more likely to produce open and fruitful discussion.

Challenges regarding water management like the ones described here are far from uncommon and are likely to become more prevalent as societies scramble to support growing populations. Physical evidence of water shortage — lower groundwater tables, dried up wetlands, reduced river flow — can already be seen all over the globe. Our responses to such challenges — as individuals and as societies — will shape our own futures and those of our descendants. Whether these challenges will be resolved in bitter struggles or with open cooperation depends largely on us.

Resources and References


Key Points

  • At some point, all societies must address the challenges presented by the scarcity of resources.
  • Historical ways of dealing with local resource scarcity are unlikely to be as effective now at addressing global resource scarcities.
  • Understanding the assumptions that economists and ecologists make when discussing resource scarcity can help us to see how each field provides important insights to future resource challenges.
  • Numerous factors, including social dynamics anda general lack of focus on the broad effects of our actions, make unsustainable use of resources more likely.
  • By understanding those factors, we can address resource scarcity through better decision-making and the development of effective institutions for managing resource use.
  • Better decision-making and effective institutions will be necessary in order to maintain human security in the face of contemporary resource challenges.


Extension Activities & Further Research

  1. Play Oh Deer [PDF]. This is a kids’ game, but undergraduates tend to enjoy it at least as much as young children. It provides a lesson in population dynamics and resource scarcity.
  2. Have students read the debates regarding resource scarcity and substitutability between neoclassical economists such as Julian Simon and ecological economist such a Herman Daly. They can then write a response paper expressing their own views on the debate.
  3. Choose a conflict that scholars attribute to resource scarcity (e.g. Sudanese civil war). What role did resource scarcity play? What other factors led to violent conflict?
  4. Identify an example where people misunderstand the behaviour of a complex social-ecological system and explain how that misunderstanding leads to unsustainable behaviour. See Meadows (2008) for more information on understanding complex systems.
  5. Discuss what things are regarded as resources in your culture. Compare, e.g. a glass of juice: with a lake, with your parents, with the local church. Which of these four things are less like a resource and why? What does this difference depend on?

List of Terms

See Glossary for full list of terms and definitions.

  • cognitive dissonance
  • dead zone
  • ecological marginalization
  • exponential growth
  • externality
  • infinite substitutability
  • intergenerational justice
  • procuring efficiency

Suggested Reading

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Dawson, C. M., Rosin, C., & Wald, N. (Eds.). (2019). Global resource scarcity: Catalyst for conflict or cooperation? Routledge.

Jonsson, F. A., Brewer, J., Fromer, N., & Trentmann, F. (Eds.). (2019). Scarcity in the modern world: History, politics, society and sustainability, 1800–2075. Bloomsbury Academic.[13]

Lomborg, B. (2013). The skeptical environmentalist: Measuring the real state of the world (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139626378[14]

Meadows, D. (2008). Thinking in systems: A primer (D. Wright, Ed.). Chelsea Green Publishing.[15]

Pimm, S., & Harvey, J. (2001). No need to worry about the future: Environmentally, we are told, ‘things are getting better’. [Review of the book The skeptical environmentalist: Measuring the real state of the world, by B. Lomborg]. Nature 414(6860), 149–150. https://doi.org/10.1038/35102629[16]

Pirages, D., & Cousins, K. (Eds.). (2005). From resource scarcity to ecological security: Exploring new limits to growth. MIT Press.

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Media Attributions

  1. Editors’ note: An interesting theoretical way to cope with this challenge was suggested by Bartlett (2012) under the term of ‘sustained availability.’ For example, assuming that the available reserves of a given non-renewable resource would last for 40 years at the present rate of consumption (as has been estimated for petroleum), it can be available indefinitely provided that its consumption is scaled back by 1/40 = 2.5% each year. The same recommendation was made independently in the Uppsala Protocol (Campbell & Aleklett, 2004).
  2. Similarly, recycling could become an economically viable option for some resources as the costs associated with obtaining virgin resources increases.
  3. Editor’s note: The fact that the idea of infinite substitutability is still being discussed in some circles indicates that the political relevance of an idea is not necessarily affected by its scientific refutation; climate change denial is another example.
  4. While we use the term ‘rational’ colloquially to imply the use of sound judgment and good sense, economists use it to refer specifically to behaviour in which one assesses the costs and benefits of a decision and opts for the path that maximizes net gain. As we can see in Hardin’s example below, economically rational behaviour (based on analysis at the individual level) often clashes with what we think of as sound judgment.
  5. Editors’ note: ‘Simple’ ignorance excludes in principle any kind of disingenuous ignorance, i.e. false claims of ignorance or deliberate attempts not to find out.
  6. Values are reported in 1995 US dollars. Data were taken from the U.S. Energy Information Administration: https://www.eia.gov/petroleum/gasdiesel/ (accessed 26 July 2019)
  7. See a summary of B. F. Skinner's accomplishments on the Harvard University's Department of Psychology web page.
  8. Editor’s note: A pathologically extreme variant of such behavior is known as anosognosia. It manifests as the inability of a patient to recognize his/her anatomical or physiological defect, such as paralysis. Catton (2009) discussed sociocultural equivalents to such behavior that support cornucopianism.
  9. Editor’s note: The international community seems to lag behind smaller communities in this capacity for cooperation; it even seems to be moving into the wrong direction.
  10. Editor’s note: The argument that ecosystems behave as complex systems whose responses are not easily predicted is often used to support the precautionary principle in environmental policy.
  11. This work and the one by Pirages et al. provide a current evaluation of Homer-Dixon’s model.
  12. Herman Daly’s review of the first edition of Simon’s book, in which he challenges the neoclassical arguments. Daly published much about the concept of zero-growth economies.
  13. This work and the one by Dawson et al. bring the reader up to date on the international situation.
  14. This is a more recent version of Simon’s neoclassical arguments. Both are being re-evaluated now in view of the Anthropocene.
  15. This book provides a thorough introduction into the behaviour of complex systems.
  16. Stuart Pimm and Jeff Harvey’s scathing review of Lomborg’s book in the journal Nature.
  17. The website of the Population Reference Bureau offers numerous analyses on topics concerning population and resources.
  18. This book lays out the neoclassical view of resources. Simon considers human ingenuity the ultimate resource, allowing humans to cope with scarcity in other resources.
  19. Website on the debate between neoclassical economists (J. Simon) and ecological economists (H. Daly, P. Ehrlich).


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