Transition In An Age Of Austerity: Geophysical scarcity and constructed scarcity

Dr. Jody Joanna Boehnert
Tuesday, 2nd April 2013

Geophysical scarcity is the decrease in natural resources brought on by peak oil, climate change and other threats. Dr. Joanna Boehnert argues that constructed austerity is not the same as geophysical scarcity, and that it is a political choice brought on by the abuse of power.

Those of us who have been thinking about geophysical scarcities for some time need to take a critical stance on the notion of austerity. Austerity is presented as being the only alternative (a new version of Thatcher's TINA principle 'There is no Alternative') but scarcities constructed by irresponsible fiscal policies and financial speculation are simply not the same as geophysical scarcities.

In order to protect the movements that we are building, it is important for environmentalists to establish clear distinctions between these two types of scarcities. To understand austerity as a constructed scarcity we should note both the reasons why it is happening and the ways in which it is being implemented. 

After facilitating an unprecedented transfer of public wealth to the financial sector, the state is imposing harsh austerity measures. A crisis caused by relatively unregulated financial markets left the economy at the edge of collapse, but it is not the bankers who are being forced to pay for this problem.

The state is now imposing austerity on the rest of us for the mistakes and irresponsible practices of the financial class. We should have shut down the risky activities in The City and punished banks. Instead they were rewarded with bailouts and the subsequent continuation of a culture of excessive bonuses. 

Austerity is taking many forms in Britain from cuts to the NHS, education and local councils. I live in Brixton in south London where Lambeth Council has established itself as the first 'co-operative council'. Like most environmentalists, I support co-operative principles as ways of organising social movements, businesses and potentially even governance systems.

Unfortunately, the word 'co-operative' has been appropriated by Lambeth to mean something very different. The word is being used to put a friendly face on policies that are decidedly not co-operative. Instead, the basic right to be paid for the work we do is under threat. We will all be asked to work for free or, if we have jobs, there will be little job security. The public sector will now somehow be run by those of us who care enough about our community to work without being paid.

Some of us (the ones with compassion for others and/or concern for the environment) might not mind helping our community without being paid if we could afford to – and if this work was shared fairly between everyone. 'Co-operative' is a concept wherein the people involved decide on the terms under which we will agree to 'co-operate'.

What we have instead in Lambeth is a council imposing supposed 'co-operation' on us. This 'co-operation' actually means we will be expected to work for much less (or for free), we can expect few public services and we must compliantly accept austerity without questioning its premises.

This new mode of co-operative councils is a desperate measure by Lambeth council to provide services in the face of shrinking budgets. The austerity discourse tells us that the people of Lambeth had better get used to it – there is no alternative to austerity. This is a failure of imagination.

Austerity is a constructed concept and it is a serious mistake to confuse geophysical scarcities (brought on by peak oil, climate change and other threats) with constructed scarcities (brought on by the abuse of power).

We must not allow neo-liberal political discourses to appropriate the ideas (i.e. scarcity and co-operatives) that we have spent decades developing to support environmental goals and healthy communities.

We must not allow our movements to be used to legitimise austerity and the neo-liberal assault on the public sector. Austerity is also an assault on our capacity to organise to protect the natural world and respond to climate change.

Austerity is constructed scarcity: this is not a legitimate scarcity.

Further resources

What we can be doing towards energy security: Draft energy bill - reasons to be concerned? 

If you are interested in becoming a co-operative read: Are You Looking for a Permaculture Farm or Land for an Eco Community?

Reduce your bills in times of austerity: Cheaply Increasing the Energy Efficiency of an Old Home

Read Looby Macnamara's permaculture design and principles for people: People and Permaculture (also availbale in eBook)

Read an extract from Looby's People and Permaculture: Empowering permaculture: How to make a difference