Theory critique: Scarcity, Environmental Limits and Planetary Boundaries


This is the third of a series of theoretical critiques I am doing on entries in the volume, Companion to Environmental Studies (Castree et. al. 2018). This essay responds to the entry Scarcity and environmental limits (section 1.19) written by Sara Nelson and mentions, but does not review in full, Planetary boundaries (2.18) written by Katherine Richardson.

Concern over environmental limits has been a longstanding environmental trope, and ideas of planetary boundaries are their contemporary counterpart. Sara Nelson’s review of scarcity and environmental limits is thorough: she chronicles the development and history of debate with central regard for shifting conceptions of natural resources and population growth.

These two topics, and theorizing the relation between them, have been the central issue over discussions of environmental limits. Nelson charts a long line of neoclassical thinkers and their ideas, which I wish to list briefly:

  • David Ricardo (diminishing returns to land)
    • John S. Mill (economic ‘steady state’ equilibrium)
    • Thomas Malthus (resource scarcity from exponential population growth but linear food production)
    • Karl Marx (limits relative to historic modes of production)
    • William Jevons (technological development would bring more intensive resource use per capita, “Jevons Paradox”)

And Nelson logically separates for us a shift in thought from neoclassicism to neo-Malthusianism, reviewing latter thinkers important to further development of scarcity and environmental limits; “with a shift in emphasis from land to capital as the key production input alongside labor, neoclassical economists sidelined concern with natural resources…and began instead to theorize their ‘substitutability’ with capital through technological innovation” (and with exceptions).

Finally, Nelson clearly marks for the reader two more significant turns that bring us to contemporary times. The first is the return of Malthusian thought (termed neo-Malthusianism) in the 1960s/1970s (rightfully reviewing significant actors like Paul Ehrlich and The Limits to Growth by Meadows et. al., 1972). The second shift to contemporary concept of planetary boundaries Nelson describes in two terms—tipping points and posthumanism, the latter surprising me (and educating me) in a normative turn at the very end of the piece.

Application to my framework-building

Altogether, Nelson’s review is outstanding and I find it hard to come up with constructive criticism. Her work is concise, clear, thorough, and reminds me of all the important thinkers and turns I know from my studies—and then some.

I selected this entry to review because I am dealing with the question of technology, and wondering how I will narrow down how I address it in terms of environmental discourse. After reviewing this piece, I wonder if it isn’t going to be immediately useful, and looking toward another entry such as Precaution (1.15) may be more helpful.


Nelson, Sara. “Scarcity and Environmental Limits.” In Companion to Environmental Studies, edited by Noel Castree, Mike Hulme, and James D. Proctor, 100–105. London ; New York: Routledge, 2018.