NOTE: I wrote this essay in the Fall of 2019 with no intentions to publish it. The recent weeks made me think it was worth posting — though it is not entirely in line with this site’s subject matter.
Humanity in Times of Scarcity
I sit, sniffing the wafting scent of freshly-ground coffee while the baristas tend to the growing line of impatient commuters. They shift their weight from side to side. Some check their watches or phones, and the gentle bustle of a weekday morning grows into a hurried frenzy. It’s the eight-o-clock rush.
The lady at the till quietly states her order and reaches for her wallet. A ten-dollar bill escapes her purse and flutters to the dark tile floor. The man behind her picks up the unnoticed loss and politely returns it to her. They smile and she thanks him. With coffee in hand she makes for the door and another customer, who is just about to enter, holds the door for her while she makes her exit.
I watch the interaction take place and start pondering — the kind of pondering in search of underlying causes and hidden meanings. The kind of pondering a hapless writer uses as procrastination fodder.
It wasn’t chivalry that drove the customer to hold the door. Nor was it some extreme sense of justice and law-and-order that compelled the man to return the errant ten. It was simply a good thing to do. They were able to project themselves into the lady’s situation. They had empathy. Civility.
By its definition empathy is an act of thinking of others — to place one’s self in another’s shoes and see through their eyes. It is a trait without which we humans are reduced to the mad, cold calculus of life. Robots. We lose our humanity. A community ceases to exist without empathy because “why would one put time and effort to improve the well-being of others with little return on investment?” “Why would I plant a tree that I may never be able to enjoy the shade of?” “Why would I help build a bridge over a river when I own a boat?” “Why would I help build institutions that I have no intention or need of using?”
The inverse of empathy is selfishness and narcissism.
Scarcity is the lack of something. When money is tight it is scarce. No food? There is a food scarcity. It has been said that Economics is simply the study of scarcity. We have limited resources and the price of such things increases with an increase in demand or a decrease in supply — a scarcity. It then stands that if there is a scarcity of a resource then its price increases. Want that one-of-a-kind hand-made rug from Nepal? There is only one. Supply is limited. The price will be high. A new wave of a popular toy is released just before Christmas. Every child wants one and stores are selling out. Supply was high but demand has outpaced it — now you are Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Jingle All the Way”. An extreme scarcity brings new players into the game such as scalpers and counterfeiters in addition to significantly-increased prices for the original product.
The curve, and intersection, of supply and demand is a fundamental tenet of microeconomics (Looking at the behaviour of individuals and firms). But what happens if the resource in high demand is, say, food or shelter or medicine?
On Monday, 29 August 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall East of New Orleans. The destructive power was so great that it breached the levees and flooded large swaths of the city. Years later, the damages would rise higher than $160 billion and the population fell by 29% from 2005-2011. An estimated 1833 people died. For five days after the storm subsided, those who took refuge at the New Orleans Superdome, thousands of people, experienced an extreme shortage of food and water. In that time portions of the city fell into complete lawlessness. Looting, shootings, and assaults were reported. Hospitals and make-shift clinics, who still had power, ran into shortages of food, water, and medicine. They had to ration their supplies.
Gregory Henderson, a pathologist who set up a temporary clinic at a hotel, experienced it first-hand;
“Our biggest adventure today was raiding the Walgreens on Laval [street] under police escort. The pharmacy was dark and full of water. We basically scooped the entire drug sets into garbage bags and removed them. All under police escort. The looters had to be held back at gunpoint.”
Five days! In 1906, Alfred Henry Lewis is quoted as saying “There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy.” Hurricane Katrina would seem to support such a claim. But if we are only nine meals away from anarchy what does our food supply look like now? Surely we have built robust logistical systems to ensure that, say, an entire city does not devolve into anarchy!
Cities are growing, and, according to the “Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States”, food grown in and near cities encounter a unique set of problems with increased disease incidence, pollution, land expense, and quality. This means that most food is grown far outside the city.
To summarize, cities are growing. Growth increases pollution and reduces growing spaces in and near cities. Those farms that are close to cities experience additional hardships for being close, so most food is grown beyond the city boundary — sometimes quite far. Finally, a city is nine meals from anarchy. This means that a city requires constant delivery of food from outside the city limits to maintain order. In the case of food delivery cessation, the city would have (#days worth of food stores) + 3 days to fix it — assuming 3 meals per day. But we are talking about scarcity and humanity. So far I have only highlighted the precariousness of our food situation.
In times of crisis we see both the “best and worst of humanity”. With Hurricane Katrina I only outlined a single example of “the bad”. With this said, it is perfectly natural to want to insulate one’s self from harm. If you know a big storm is coming you prepare appropriately: Secure your shelter, stock up on provisions such as food and water, and fill up your car with gas — or other things equally prudent.
But what happens if an entire city prepares for that storm at the same time? A nation? Stores run out of food. Shelves lay bare. Lineups for the gas station stretch kilometers long. Tempers rise before the tempest. The entire population of the city is acting in their own self-interest, and there are not enough resources to satisfy the sudden spike in demand. There is a scarcity, and when there is a scarcity people have to compete for the limited supply of resources. In the end some will “have” and others will “have not”. This seems appropriate in the “well that’s the way things are” sense except that we are talking about necessities. Food and appropriate shelter. Fundamental human needs. “That’s the way things are” does not cut it. That “cool calculus” makes sense for the individual but does not consider others. It lacks empathy. It is narcissistic. Selfish.
Statements like “I’ve got mine”, or “I only take care of me and my own”, echo in the halls of those with souls too weak to grasp the concept of Community. Too hardened to care for another in need. Too fearful to open one’s door to strangers. But in a time of crisis can one blame them? Yes! Such times reveal their character when before all there was were words.
Scarcity will always exist. It may not affect one directly but that does not nullify its existence. Nor does it excuse one from their social responsibility to understand another’s position. It does not dull the hunger pangs of those without food any more than “work harder” or “get a job” elevates the unmotivated unemployed. Crisis reveals character. What we need is empathy.
My aside about food stands some-what out of place without further explanation. I view food as both a necessity for life and social well-being. It is relatable to everyone in at least one of these two senses. Food bridges gaps.
In a more direct sense the example also explains how close we are, at any given moment, to crisis. It makes it real. It is surreal to view the world through this lens — to see the teetering back and forth but not have any real solution.