By Ed Ring / December 23, 2014 / California Policy Center
The prevailing challenge facing humanity when confronted with resource constraints is not that we are running out of resources, but how we will adapt and create new and better solutions to meet the needs that currently are being met by what are arguably scarce or finite resources. If one accepts this premise, that we are not threatened by diminishing resources, but rather by the possibility that we won’t successfully adapt and innovate to create new resources, a completely different perspective on resource scarcity and resource policies may emerge.
Across every fundamental area of human needs, history demonstrates that as technology and freedom is advanced, new solutions evolve to meet them. Despite tragic setbacks of war or famine that provide examples to contradict this optimistic claim, overall the lifestyle of the average human being has inexorably improved across the centuries. While it is easy to examine specific consumption patterns today and suggest we now face a tipping point wherein shortages of key resources will overwhelm us, if one examines key resources one at a time, there is a strong argument that such a catastrophe, if it does occur, will be the result of war, corruption, or misguided adherence to counterproductive ideologies, and not because there were not solutions readily available through human creativity and advancing technology.
Energy, water and land are, broadly speaking, the three resources one certainly might argue are finite and must be scrupulously managed. But in each case, a careful examination provides ample evidence to contradict this claim. Known reserves of fossil fuel could provide enough energy to serve 100% of the energy requirements of civilization at a total annual rate of consumption twice what is currently consumed worldwide; there is enough fossil fuel on the planet to provide 1.0 quintillion BTUs of energy per year for the next 300 years. In addition to fossil fuel there are proven sources of energy such as nuclear power, and new sources of energy such as solar, geothermal, and biomass, that have the potential to scale up to provide comparable levels of power production. With these many energy alternatives, combined with relentless improvements in energy efficiency, it is difficult to imagine human civilization ever running out of energy.
Water is a resource that appears finite, and indeed in many regions of the world the challenge of meeting projected water needs appears more daunting than the challenge of producing adequate energy. But water is not necessarily finite. There are countless areas throughout the world where desalination technology can provide water in large quantities – already nearly 2% of the world’s fresh water is obtained through desalination, and for large urban users, desalination is affordable and requires a surprisingly small energy input. Another way to provide abundant water is to redirect large quantities of river water via inter-basin transfers from water rich areas to water poor areas. Finally, water is never truly used up, it is continuously recycled, and by treating and reusing water, particularly in urban areas, there should never be water scarcity.
The question of finding adequate land for humans is clearly different from that of finding energy or water, since unlike energy or water, land is truly finite. But even here, key trends indicate land is now becoming more abundant, not less abundant. In 2007 the population of humans became more than 50% concentrated in cities, and within the next 25 years this concentration is expected to grow to 75%. Humans, in general, prefer living in urban environments, and this massive voluntary migration to cities from rural areas is depopulating landscapes faster than what remains of human population growth will fill them. This seismic shift in population patterns, combined with high yield crops, aquaculture, and urban high-rise agriculture, promises a decisive and very positive shift from land scarcity to land abundance in the next 25-50 years.
Human population growth, along with increasing per capita standards of living, taken at face value, obviously could suggest we are racing towards disaster. But as noted, resources to accommodate greater rates of overall human consumption are more resilient than is commonly accepted. And, crucially, most of human population growth has already occurred. The welcome reality of female emancipation, female literacy, and increasing general prosperity is causing human cultures all over the world, one by one, to shift from rapid population growth to negative population growth. The demographic challenge we must prepare for is not too many people, but too many old people. Our long-term challenge is not resource scarcity, but how to nurture sustainable and robust economic growth on a planet where humans have an ever-increasing average age, and a population in slow numeric decline.
If one accepts the possibility that humanity is not on a collision course with resource scarcity, entirely new ways of looking at policy options are revealed. Rather than attempting to manage demand, based on the premise that supplies are finite, we might also manage supply by increasing production. While, for example, utility pricing might still be somewhat progressive, if we assume resources will not run out, it doesn’t have to be punitive. If someone wishes to use more energy or water than their neighbor, if their pricing isn’t so punitive as to effectively ration their consumption, but instead is only moderately progressive, then over consumption leads to higher profit margins at the utility, which in-turn finances more investment in supplies.
Another consequence of rejecting the Malthusian conventional wisdom is a new understanding of what may truly motivate many powerful backers of the doomsday lobby. By limiting consumption through claiming resources are perilously scarce and by extracting them we may destroy the earth, the vested interests who control the means of production will tighten their grip on those means. Instead of pluralistically investing in this last great leap forward to build mega cities and infrastructure for the future – in the process extracting raw materials that can be either recycled or are renewable – the public entities and powerful corporations who benefit from scarcity will raise prices and defer investment. It is the interests of the emergent classes, whether they are entrepreneurs in prosperous, advanced economies, or the aspiring masses in developing nations, who are harmed the most by the Malthusian notion of inevitable scarcity.
Abundance is a choice, and it is a choice the privileged elite must make – in order for humanity to achieve abundance, the elites must accept the competition of disruptive technologies, the competition of emerging nations, and a vision of environmentalism that embraces resource development and rejects self-serving anti-growth alarmist extremism. The irony of our time is that the policies of socialism and extreme environmentalism do more harm than good to both ordinary people and the environment, while enabling wealthy elites to perpetuate their position of privilege at the same time as they embrace the comforting but false ideology of scarcity.
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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.