Are we staring at a long-term era of scarcity?

In a piece for the Jan.-Feb. 2010 issue of The Futurist (membership magazine of the World Future Society), Stephen Aguilar-Millan, Ann Feeney, Amy Oberg, and Elizabeth Rudd painted a bracing view of economic life between now and 2050:

The world economy will experience scarcities of natural resources from now until the middle of the twenty-first century, when a post-scarcity world becomes a reality….The world between 2010 and 2050 is likely to be characterized by scarcities: a scarcity of credit, a scarcity of food, a scarcity of energy, a scarcity of water, and a scarcity of mineral resources.

Similarly, consider this excerpt from a piece by Don Peck in the March issue of The Atlantic, which I included in a previous post (link here) about the effects of the Great Recession:

The Great Recession may be over, but this era of high joblessness is probably just beginning. Before it ends, it will likely change the life course and character of a generation of young adults. It will leave an indelible imprint on many blue-collar men. It could cripple marriage as an institution in many communities. It may already be plunging many inner cities into a despair not seen for decades. Ultimately, it is likely to warp our politics, our culture, and the character of our society for years to come.

Our challenge

If these bleak forecasts turn out to be accurate (or even close), then we are looking at a long-term period of difficult times. This will not be easy for generations who have lived during an age of material excess, fueled by easy credit and a belief that economic prosperity is our birthright.

Our challenge will be to find ways to live good and meaningful lives in an era of scarcity. It will require revisiting the values that led us to this mess and reorienting our lives and lifestyles so that we are less about stuff and more about humanity. Instructive on these points are the words of my late friend and pioneering adult educator John Ohliger (1926-2004), which appeared in a 1981 issue of his newsletter Second Thoughts:

My picture is of a future where we live more relaxed and more modest lives with an abundance of unmeasurable and infinitely available non-material (or better, trans-material) resources. All the travail and pressure we’re going through right now may be paving the way for that future. This future could be one where we will have a choice of “goodies”; not ones requiring scarce energy, minerals, or dollars; or ones permitting some people to get rich while others go hungry, but choices that we create with our own hearts and heads and hands among people we know and care for.

World of work

Obviously this will have a profound impact on the world of work. In the U.S., we’re already seeing this with persistently high unemployment rates and extended periods of joblessness. It is quite possible we have not hit rock bottom.

And yet, we live in a world where so much remains to be done. It’s not as if our needs for food, housing, goods, and services have suddenly disappeared. It’s not as if our lives are as enriched as they could be by music, words, and art. And it’s not as if all of our sick and elderly are receiving proper care, all of our bridges, tunnels, and roadways are sturdy and safe, and all of our kids are learning and growing at school.

So, is there a better time than now for our creativity, entrepreneurship, and enterprise — informed and inspired by a healthy dose of humanity — to rise up and shape our future, lest we be limited by forces we let control us?


The article in The Futurist, “The Post-Scarcity World of 2050,” is available online to World Future Society members.

I am working with John Ohliger’s wife, Chris Wagner, to revive Second Thoughts as a blog. To read the initial posts, go here.

3 responses

  1. It seems that one factor we clearly have an abundance of is a work population — and that, therefore, one of the issues, that very much needs to be revisited is how our culture/economy could be revamped to take advantage of this vast resource to attend to all our collective needs — both for those needs and to the advantage of that work population. (And, relatedly, the great risks of failing to take into account the potential and needs of that work force — very much connected to the issue of workplace abuse). Also, we need to revisit the whole issue of work and what role in plays in persons’ lives — not just economically but psychologically and sociologically as well. As your comment aptly highlights, crises abound and with them the necessity and opportunity to reexamine some of our more basic assumptions, including perhaps about basic societal structures. I look forward to following the blog being set up on John Ohliger’s ideas.

  2. Pingback: Can communal responses to tough times lead us to better lives? « Minding the Workplace

  3. People with a liberal mentality tend to avoid noticing that our current malaise is very much a product of governmental policies. If we continue under our current policies, we are doubtless headed for more of the same.

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