God and the Evil of Scarcity: Moral Foundations of Economic Agency by Albino Barrera, O.P. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005. 272 pp)
Albino Barrera teaches economics and theology at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island. In addition to God and the Evil of Scarcity, he wrote Modern Catholic Social Documents and Political Economy (Georgetown University Press) in 2001.
It Begins with Malthus
For Albino Barrera, God and the Evil of Scarcity is essentially a response to the Malthusian understanding of theodicy. While most consider resource scarcity and population control when Thomas Malthus comes to mind, Barrera explores Malthus’ foundational views of God that lead him to his conclusions on resource scarcity.
Simply put, Barrera understands Malthusian theodicy as a source for human mastery when he writes,
“Using natural theology, Malthus argues that God created a world of scarcity to provide people with reason and incentive to apply themselves in work and striving” (2).
In other words, the condition of scarcity – an evil for all intents and purposes – inspires the pursuit of good. Despite the insistence through Christian tradition that evil is an absence of the good and an occurrence resulting from our fallen nature, Malthus sees evil as a root cause that generates the desire for good.
Theodicy and Economic Scarcity
Rejecting this notion of theodicy, Barrera explores Thomistic and New Testament traditions seeking to better understand the reason for existing economic scarcity. For Barrera, God contains the power to provide humanity with everything it needs to flourish on earth.
Since humankind struggles with its allocation of resources, Barrera reasons that God must provide a good reason for the existence of such scarcity. Barrera notes,
“The economic statutes and ordinances that flow from such historicity become the means for God to proffer and elicit human participation in divine holiness, righteousness, and providence. Scarcity makes conformity to the Law that much more sacrificial, but that much more consequential as well” (199).
In other words, scarcity offers humanity the opportunity to sacrificially work with God in the world. As people encounter need, scarcity makes help sacrificial and more meaningful. Thus, the evil of scarcity exists not to require harder work from people in order to gain assets but to supply a cost for the apostolate work of giving to those in need.
Scarcity and My Pre-Conceived Notions
In all honesty, I found Barrera’s position on scarcity to be extremely refreshing. Before reading this book, my understanding of scarcity was exceptionally negative. At best, scarcity explained why some people owned much and others possessed little; at worst, scarcity is a deeply engrained selfishness that limits the ability for the poor to survive in a harsh world. By reframing the discussion, I found it encouraging to consider scarcity as a way for sacrificial giving to truly have meaning.
What About Excessive Population and Sustainability?
Nevertheless, Barrera’s thesis is lacking in one critical category. Whether or not Malthus carried erroneous assumptions about theodicy, the damning portion of his thought in modern life is the effect of population on the environment. With fewer people, the allocation of resources is out of mind and out of sight. However, exponential human growth requires a similar growth in resource usage. Since the earth is finite, no matter the theological value of scarcity in sacrificial giving, an unsustainably large population incurs an enormous burden on scarce resources.
While most of God and the Evil of Scarcity ignores the role of population in the discussion of scarcity and sufficiency, Barrera attempts to answer the critique in an appendix to the book. He writes,
“The universe cannot reach its external end in God if its parts (humans, in this case) are unable to operate according to the nature of their being for want of material nourishment and the other means necessary for their full actualization” (234).
In simple terms, God will not allow a population to balloon in such a way that it debilitates humanity and creation.
Sadly, such a position ignores the fact that sacrificial giving to the world’s poor will greatly burden our access to scarce resources. Moreover, this position ignores the crucial work of sustainability experts who are reconsidering humanity’s relationship with resources arguing that consumption is possible without deteriorating resources (See William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (New York: North Point Press, 2002).
Despite my gratitude for the new perspective Barrera offers on scarcity, namely, its existence for the sacrificial giving of resources to others, I find both the population problem and current sustainable considerations for resources help to render Barrera’s thesis problematic.
Likewise, this book feels like the reworking of a dissertation. Each page contains excessive citations and footnotes which provide clear evidence that Barrera completed his homework, yet, it creates difficult reading throughout the work.
If you are interested in the intersection between theology and economics, God and the Evil of Scarcity offers a unique perspective. However, for most people, I would not recommend this book.