Coffee Hour: The Triumph of Economics Over Geography ...

Friday, April 5, 2013 - 3:30pm to 5:00pm
3:30 p.m. Refreshments are offered in the E. Willard Miller seminar room, 319 Walker Building • 4:00 p.m. The lecture begins at 4:00 p.m. in the John J. Cahir Auditorium, 112 Walker Building

The Triumph of Economics over Geography: A New Theory of Scarcity

About the talk

Poverty is universally seen as the lack of income to purchase a minimum threshold market basket of basic use-values such as food, health, housing, transport, and energy—a perspective that automatically transforms basic use-values into commodities to be purchased in the market.  

What use-values are produced is of course quite incidental to the business of maximizing exchange value or profit. Poverty exists, not due to lack of income, but because the economy systematically fails to produce basic use-values such as healthy bodies, good nutrition, affordable houses, and sustainable energy systems. The standard geography of poverty is a map showing the distribution of low income; as such, what it shows is the spatial distribution of people’s inability to purchase commodities. This is what I call the triumph of economics over geography.

The more fundamental question is why the economy is grossly incapable of producing quality basic use-values at affordable prices. To answer that question, we need a new view of geography and a new theory of scarcity that goes beyond the economist’s claim that scarcity exists because resources are limited (the state of nature) and demand is unlimited (the state of human nature). Contrary to that claim, I argue that scarcity is not natural, but socially constructed, and therefore, we the people have a lot of power to change the conversation and overcome scarcity socially.  

About the speaker

Lakshman YapaLakshman Yapa is a professor of geography at Penn State.  He is originally from Sri Lanka where he did his undergraduate studies.  His Ph.D. is from Syracuse University, New York. He teaches courses on poverty and economic development and was the director of the Philadelphia Field Project from 1998–2010. He has won numerous university and national awards for teaching and service learning. He won Outreach Award in 2000, Penn State; Wilson Outstanding Teaching Award 1992, and the Wilson Outstanding Service Award in 2001 in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences; The President’s Award for Excellence in Academic Integration in 2006 (an award given for excellence in integration of teaching, research, and service); National Association for Multicultural Education Program Award in 2004; Magrath/Kellog Regional Engagement Award Northeast in 2008; and the Magrath/Kellog National Engagement Award in 2008; and the Ryan Faculty Fellowship 2009-2012.


Additional reading

1.  “Transforming the University through Community Engagement,” Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, Vol. 13, No. 3, 2008, 131-148.

2.  “Geography and Discourse Theory” Ed. B. Warf, Sage Encyclopedia of Hunan Geography, Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2006.

3. “What is Scarcity?” in The Future of Knowledge and Culture: A Dictionary for the Twenty-First Century Eds. A. Nandy and V. Lal , Penguin, Delhi, 2005, pp. 286-291.