Image Credit: USDA
Image Credit: USDA

“Be good, children, all of you, and strive to be ready for when the change comes.” -Andrew Jackson

I am consistently amazed by the degree to which human responses to change are comparable to that of other animals. For all of our blustering that we with our enormous brains are superior to the lesser beasts, we manage to fall into a lot of the same patterns as our imagined underlings. The population of Ireland in the early seventeen hundreds, for instance, was limited by the fact that agriculture was difficult and crop yields were typically low. This pinned the population at around two million. However, with the introduction of the potato the population of the small island exploded four fold. The crop was ideally suited for growth in the wet, temperate climate and gave great yields on small plots of land. Even the poorest of peasants could farm large potato crops on their meager lands and stuff their family full of the tremendous tuber.

This population response to a sudden increase in resources is found in every species. Every individual in every population has an energy budget that needs to be fulfilled. If you can only find enough food to sustain the body mass that you already have, you are not going to add more mass let alone spend precious energy reproducing. However, if the potato gods, in the form of Sir Walter Raleigh, gifts your island with an abundance of metabolic energy for every individual, then mating will commence posthaste. And it’s not just humans that follow this pattern. Muskrats, damselflies, right down to bacteria all fall in to this resource usage pattern.

The inverse of this pattern is also true. Take away precious resources from a system and the individuals, now faced with a scarcity problem, with compete for what is left. Some species will go as far as hoarding resources so that they are self-insured against future resource depletion. Here again is a trend that humans fit perfectly. Today we have complicated systems of wire, light and electricity to transfer our stock of resources from smartphone to bank server to ATM. Still, however, the concept remains the same. Not to mention, it was only seconds ago by evolutionary standards that people did have to physically hoard their resources and protect them from others.  In fact, the entire notion of capitalism is based on the fact that resources are finite so you better get as much as you can because you just never know when there will be a shortage.

This stands in comparison to my favorite near utopia, the United Federation of Planets, in which molecules can be taken from anything and arranged into anything else. The result is that money is a non-existent thing because, when your own waste can be turned back into food, resources are effectively infinite.

But until we arrive at that glorious point in the future where I can command my tea to be earl grey and hot, questions of a scarcity society will continue to plague us. Some of our scarcity questions we seem capable of solving. I would wager that we already have the technological components that we need to solve our fossil fuel scarcity question. Others questions are considerably more frightening. With only an estimated 2.5% of earth’s water being fresh, and less than one percent of that being available for human use, how will we solve that most biologically basic scarcity issue? With rivers now failing to reach oceans and aquifers drying up, will we hoard our resources and fight each other over what is left? Or, will we follow the model that we have set for ourselves time and time again, adaptation. At the point in history when enough food could not be gathered to feed a village, we cultivated our crops and made cities. When we could not cultivate enough to feed the city, we irrigated those crops and made nations. Now we face a choice; not just in water usage, but in nearly all realms of scarcity questions. We can remain as we are and watch as our countries wither. Or we can adapt, innovate, and build a world.

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