Letter from the Editor

The spectre of scarcity

By Dave Oswald Mitchell

February 2007

“When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.”

Rudolf Bahro

I’VE BEEN TRYING LATELY TO FIND A HEALTHY balance between optimism and pessimism, hope and despair. Surveying the accumulating evidence of out-of-control climate change, pending oil and gas production peaks, collapsing ecosystems, and the growing strains on our industrial food system, it would seem that even hope has become a scarce resource.

On the other hand, we are presently witnessing a sea change in people�s environmental and social consciousness. People are waking up in increasing numbers to the inherent unsustainability of the status quo. Perhaps our greatest challenge over the next few years will be to translate that growing public awareness into action: we must not allow ourselves to be lulled back into either complacency or despair about the prospects for change. Giving up is not an option; the stakes are simply too high.

This issue of Briarpatch strives to bridge the distance between awareness and action, reflecting the precarious balance between optimism and realism that all of us who are striving for social and environmental justice must increasingly walk.

WHY ALL THE DOOM AND GLOOM, YOU ASK? BECAUSE a spectre is haunting the industrialized world today—-the spectre of systemic scarcity. And in spite of all the assurances of free-market pollyannas and quick-fix hucksters, it is becoming clear that the system is woefully unprepared to deal with the many limits we are fast approaching. The sooner (and better) we understand these limits and their causes, the better we’ll be able to push for sane and equitable responses from all levels of government.

Scarcity per se is nothing new, of course. Capitalism depends on it, since people who don’t need anything make terrible wage-slaves. As Voltaire observed, “the rich require an abundant supply of the poor”—-and the recent success of the rich is painfully evident in the increasing severity and spread of poverty in Canada and around the world.

As Richard Heinberg and Darrin Qualman argue in this issue, however, in the coming years we face the prospect of a particular kind of scarcity not seen since pre-industrial times: a systemic scarcity of fuel and of food that is entirely beyond the ability of market supply and demand to reconcile. Thinkers as diverse as Jane Jacobs (Dark Age Ahead), Thomas Homer-Dixon (The Upside of Down), and Ronald Wright (A Short History of Progress) have argued that the approaching ecological, economic, and social pressures threaten the very collapse of global civilization within our lifetime.

Considered together, food and energy offer a useful lens for understanding the nature and causes of these pressures, as well as an excellent departure point for a discussion of what we can (and must) do, individually and collectively, to re-conceive our relationship with both the industrial economy and the natural world.

Of course, in such a short space we can barely scratch the surface of such a complex topic, but we hope we at least manage to whet your appetite for further education and action on these issues. Once you start looking, you’ll find no shortage of print and on-line resources and community groups working to address these issues. We’ve included a short-list of such resources on page 31—-visit www.briarpatchmagazine.com for the full buffet. Please drop us a line if you have resources or ideas to add or thoughts to share—-be they hopeful, despairing, or something in between.

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