3.1.3 Non-human nature as a scarce resource

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Unit 3 Contents



If you see human beings as just part of the mechanism that the whole world is, and if you hold that the basic aim in human life is to maximize ‘utility’, two other things follow.

(a) The rest of nature, i.e. everything other than humans, comes to be seen as raw material to be used to the end of maximizing ‘utility’.  The mechanistic world as such is there to be understood by experimental science and then used as a pool of resources for the human purpose of utility maximization.

In other words, non-human nature is morally neutral ‘stuff’, however complex it might be in terms of its mechanisms.  It doesn’t have any value in itself, but has only the value given to it by its usefulness for human projects.  For example, a mature forest is a rich source of timber, of plants that are edible or can be used in medicine, and of opportunities for recreation.  But, on this view, its value is only instrumental for such human uses and it has no inherent worth.

(b) If humans are mechanisms driven by never-ending desire for ‘utility’, they can never really be satisfied. Their wants are infinite – but the natural resources in the world around are finite.  Therefore these are a scarce resource.  There will never be enough of them to enable satiation of human desire because, however fully and efficiently raw material is used to produce goods and services, people will remain unsatisfied and will want more.

In other words, relative to the human desire for utility maximization, there is always a scarcity of resources.

This generates a major plank in the discipline of economics, the ‘assumption of scarcity’.

If this way of seeing things is true, the conclusion follows that, however rich we all become, we will still experience scarcity as a basic feature of human living.  On the face of it, this is a strange conclusion!  But the assumption of scarcity is built into the very foundation of the theory of modern economics.  Hence, according to classical economics, the richest country on earth, the USA, is still characterized fundamentally by scarcity.  Like every country, it needs to continue to sustain the highest possible economic growth to enable utility maximization.

These points, (a) and (b), generate the third of the three bullet points given in the last screen, and reproduced here:

  • the mechanistic world-view
  • the economic theory of human beings as ‘utility maximizers’
  • non-human nature as a scarce resource.

In this way of seeing the world, then, all of mechanistic nature around us is a pool of resources.  It may seem vast, but it is also scarce.

It is there for us to use to the maximum extent we can, as we seek to maximize utility.  This is basically what has been happening, on an increasingly global scale, for the past 250 years.  Given which, it is hardly surprising that evidence is emerging of large-scale problems.  Our massive resource use and, along the way, waste production are damaging the natural world itself.

At least, so it can be argued.




End of 3.1.3

Go to 3.1.4 ‘Ecological crisis’


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