The human response to scarcity

Photo: A young African child in poverty.

In most places around the world, human societies have changed more in the past two hundred years than they have in the previous forty thousand. Nevertheless, we have the same emotional needs as our humble hunter-gatherer ancestors. We can travel to the moon, talk on a cell phone in Dubai to a friend in Montreal, join people from all over the world in Second Life for shared virtual living, yet our behavior is still bound by two contradictory extremes: our capacity for profound empathy, even for strangers, and our ability for ruthless cruelty, including to neighbors and next of kin. Both of these contradictory emotions play significant roles in our responses to crises and scarcity.

People will take extraordinary measures, and make extreme personal sacrifices, to help those in need. Yet crises and scarcity also stir the shadow side of human nature and contribute to violence in the name of self-preservation. As the world enters an era of increased environmental catastrophes — both in terms of their number and severity — it is vital that we acknowledge the contributions of human nature to crises before our emotions lead to even greater suffering.

Political crises are often the result of environmental degradation. According to polymath and award-winning author Jared Diamond, many countries on ecologists’ lists of the most environmentally ravaged places on Earth coincide with politicians’ lists of political trouble spots where governments are collapsing, civil wars are occurring, and vast numbers of people are fleeing. According to Diamond, this list includes:

  • Afghanistan
  • Burundi
  • Haiti
  • Indonesia
  • Iraq
  • Nepal
  • Pakistan
  • The Philippines
  • Solomon Islands
  • Somalia

These countries are not outliers. Rather, they are examples of human nature in crisis. They represent what happens to many countries and regions when environmental degradation is not addressed rapidly and aggressively.

Diamond believes we have two choices for the future — a “soft” or “hard” landing. The landing will be “soft” if we choose to address environmental problems while they are relatively easy and inexpensive to fix. The landing will be “hard” if we wait and respond after inevitable catastrophes occur — when reconstruction is not only devastatingly expensive, but also potentially impossible to pull off.

Hard landings can also have disturbing consequences for human relations. The creation of so-called “out groups,” distinguished by their differences and assumed inferiority, goes together with environmental crises, particularly when resources are limited or threatened. Even the perception of limited resources can lead to savagery. Nazis exploited peoples’ fears by portraying the possibility of food shortages as a reason to justify the genocide of those they perceived as “unfit” to feed — including Jews, the mentally ill, and homosexuals.

Avoiding the hard landing is not only about conservation, restructuring the economy, and creating environmentally protective policies. It also requires staying mindful of the human response to crises, including the human tendency to see neighbors and fellow citizens as less than human — even dispensable — when threatened by scarce resources. Otherwise, we risk eclipsing our other deeply human trait — the capacity for empathy and compassion — and a very hard landing will indeed follow.

© 2014 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).