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  • Scarcity in the Modern World: History, Politics, Society and Sustainability, 1800–2075 ed. by Fredrik Albritton et al.
  • Peter A. Coclanis
Scarcity in the Modern World: History, Politics, Society and Sustainability, 1800–2075. Edited by Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, John Brewer, Neil Fromer, and Frank Trentman (New York, Bloomsbury Academic, 2019) 294 pp. $115.00

It is interesting and at first blush ironic that in a time of unparalleled abundance when the proportion of the world's population that lives in "extreme poverty" is at an all-time low, concerns about scarcity have become increasingly prominent. A little reflection reveals that the new prominence accorded the issue of scarcity is related in complicated but powerful ways to other contemporary concerns, particularly population growth, rising living standards worldwide, climate change, the earth's carrying capacity, etc. One of the virtues of Scarcity in the Modern World is that the editors and authors generally adhere to the position that abundance and scarcity are subjective and contextual concepts that are linked logically rather than ironically and perforce should be examined and analyzed together. This important insight is but one of many in this challenging but rewarding interdisciplinary collection.

Scarcity in the Modern World is premised on boundary crossing of a particularly broad nature, bringing historians, social scientists, engineers, and natural scientists into the mix. As the volume's subtitle suggests, the project's principals adhered to a second major premise as well—that scarcity should be studied in a historical manner, in this case going back to 1800. One other premise worthy of mention is that scarcity can manifest itself at different, often overlapping, levels—local, regional, and global—and over varying periods of duration. The appropriate level of analysis and time frame must be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Scarcity in the Modern World comprises an orienting introduction by the four editors, followed by four multiple-chapter sections. Part I ("Making Scarcity") consists of four chapters wherein scholars from different fields—economics, development, anthropology, and environmental studies—present different disciplinary definitions and explanations of, as well as approaches to, "scarcity" of various kinds. Despite their disciplinary differences, none of the authors views scarcity purely in physical terms but in relation to, if not as a function of, broader historical, political, and institutional forces.

Part II ("The Power of Projection") comprises three chapters, each the work of a scholar using a different disciplinary lens to offer distinctive projections about how scarcities of varying kinds are likely to play out in the future. The role of differing perceptions in the analysis of resource availability, abundance, or scarcity is clear in these chapters.

The authors of the various chapters in Parts III and IV delve deeply into specific historical examples of various kinds of scarcity. Each of the four chapters in Part III ("Coping, Managing, Innovating at Different Scales") offers a case study involving a response to some form of scarcity, by a different type of entity—a state, an industry, or a household—at a different scale. Not only do scarcities and scales vary in the section; so do [End Page 588] the disciplinary orientations. Economists wrote two of the chapters; a historian and a geographer wrote the other two. The four chapters in Section IV ("Dynamics of Distribution") all deal, in one way or another, with the role of various types of power in shaping, even determining, the manner in which scarcity manifests in different situations. All of the authors deal, explicitly or implicitly, with ideas and insights generally associated with Sen's studies about famines.1

At the end of day, what does one make of Scarcity in the Modern World? It is a dense volume, involving multiple voices, disciplines, approaches, and perspectives. Its case studies range widely from electricity shortages in India in the early twentieth century to sanitation problems in Lagos, Nigeria, at roughly the same time, and from food shortages in China during the Great Leap Forward (1958–1960) to the famine in the Sahel in 2012. As a result, different readers will likely be drawn to different chapters, but the overall quality of the chapters is high. Even though the relentlessness of the interrogation of...


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