The world’s supply of resources is getting bigger, not smaller

According to the laws of physics, the total quantity of mass and energy is fixed. Therefore, we cannot “create” new mass or energy, and we cannot “use up” the mass and energy that we already have.

But there is something else that we can do – we can invent, build, and use technology to increase our standard of living. For example, petroleum was worthless until someone with a brain invented a way to use it, at which point the petroleum became a valuable resource. Likewise, today we take rocks that used to be worthless, and turn them into computer chips that are worth trillions of dollars.

Food

As world population doubled from 3 billion to 6 billion, daily calorie consumption per person in poor countries increased from 1,932 to 2,650, and the percentage of people in those countries who were malnourished fell from 45% to 18%.

This is a list of countries based on population density.

Taiwan has 1,673 people per square mile. Mauritius has 1,634. South Korea has 1,261. The Netherlands has 1,046. Israel has 982 . Belgium has 919. Japan has 873. The U.K. has 660. Germany has 593. Italy has 518.  None of these countries have famine, because they all have widespread use of modern technology.

By comparison, Ethiopia only has 186  people per square mile, Zimbabwe only has 85 , Sudan only has 44, Somolia only has 36, and Chad only has 23. But all of these countries have famine. These countries do not have widespread use of modern technology.

South Korea’s population density is more than twice North’s Korea’s. But South Korea is well fed, while North Korea has famine. South Korea has widespread use of modern technology. North Korea does not.

Israel is a desert country, and its population density is five times that of Ethiopia. But Israel is well fed, while Ethiopia has famine.

Countries with widespread use of modern technology never have famine, no matter how densely populated they are. The kinds of modern technology that I am talking about include mechanized farm equipment, modern methods of irrigation, large scale desalination, and, possibly in the future, even growing food inside of skyscrapers.

Water

Israel and Singapore desalinize water for less than 1/5 penny per gallon. In Saudi Arabia, desalinated water is carried 200 miles inland though pipes. Water can be recycled an infinite number of times. The water that we drink today is the same water that the dinosaurs drank 100 million years ago.

There’s also the pricing issue. Prices help get things to where they need to be. If Las Vegas were to raise its price of water by 1/2 penny per gallon, it would end up with more water than it knew what to do with. Right now in Las Vagas, the government is always telling people to conserve water – but it never tells people to conserve food. If the Las Vegas government were to order supermarkets to lower all their prices by 50%, the city would have a severe shortage of food. You can create a shortage of anything, merely by keeping the price too low. Prices matter.

Energy

The earth has enough uranium to last until the sun blows up in five billion years, so nuclear power is just as renewable as solar power.

Metals

Throughout most of world history, aluminum was more expensive than gold or platinum. When they built the Washington monument, they put a six pound piece of aluminum at the top. At the time, this was the single biggest piece of aluminum that had ever existed, and was considered quite an achievement.

During the industrial revolution, Alcoa  invented the Hall–Héroult process, which made aluminum way, way, way cheaper. Today, this process is used all over the world. Because of this invention, aluminum is now so cheap that people throw aluminum foil into the garbage.  Alcoa took what had previously been a luxury that was only available to the wealthiest people, and made it accessible to everyone.

Metals, including iron, copper, aluminum, gold, and many others, can be recycled an infinite number of times. Scarcity causes prices to rise, and these higher prices encourage recycling. No one ever throws gold into the garbage, because its price is too high. Gold can be used for electrical wiring, but because it is so expensive, we use copper instead. Prices encourage efficient use, conservation, substitution,  and recycling, so we will never run out of any metal. And newer and better technologies in the areas of mining and extraction mean that our supplies of metal are getting bigger, not smaller.

Trees

Today the United States has more trees than 100 years ago.

On a global level, of the 50 countries with the biggest amount of forest, 22 of those countries have recently experienced an increase in forestland.

The destruction of South American rainforest is a very serious problem, but it can be solved if we look at what happened in the U.S. During the 19th century, people in the U.S. cut down trees in order to obtain farmland, fuel, and building materials. However, in the 20th century, we greatly increased our food production per acre, so less land was needed for farms. We switched to more efficient sources of fuel, so wood was no longer needed for that. And for the wood that we did need for building materials, we have largely switched to highly efficient tree farms. That’s why the U.S. has more trees today than in the past.

But much of South America still uses wood for fuel, as well as inefficient methods of food production. Only when South America becomes more technologically advanced will it be able to reverse its destruction of forest the way the U.S. did.

Fish

Overfishing is a very serious problem, and the populations of many species of fish are getting smaller. This needs to be addressed and solved.

For thousands of years, it has been well established that when we hunt animals in the wild, it makes their populations get smaller, and when we raise animals on farms, it makes their populations get bigger. If we were to obtain our chickens and cows from hunting instead of from farming, they would become endangered too, just as many fish species have become.

The solution to the problem of overfishing is to stop hunting them in the wild, and to switch to farming them. Aquaculture is already being used for many species in many areas of the world, but it needs to be greatly expanded.

This article talks about a new method of fish farming that is more productive and more sustainable then previous methods. The fish are grown inside a cage that floats in the ocean, which is very different from previous methods of fish farming.

Plastic

Plastic can be made from plants, so we can never run out.

Rubber

Rubber comes from rubber tree farms, so we can never run out.

Clean air

In the early stages of a country’s industrialization, its air gets dirtier from pollution. However, once a country is rich enough to be able to provide people with their basic needs of food, housing, and electricity, the country can then afford to pass environmental protection laws. And as the country gets richer and richer, its air gets cleaner and cleaner.

For example, between 1970 and 2006, the U.S. had substantial increases in population, energy use, GDP, and miles driven. However, thanks to  government regulations, there were substantial reductions in the emissions of all of the major pollutants that are a direct threat to human health, such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulates, and lead.

Although carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased from 280 ppm to 390 ppm since we began large scale burning of fossil fuels at the beginning of the industrial revolution,  no one has ever gotten sick from such a level, and OSHA cites the danger level as being 5,000 ppm.  Nuclear reactors are being constructed all over the world, and carbon capture technology is being researched. Some day, technology will allow us to stop increasing the atmospheric rate of carbon dioxide, and that will happen long before it could ever get close to 5,000 ppm.

Landfill space

I live in Pennsylvania, which is the United State’s #1 garbage importing state. We keep approving new landfills, because we love the jobs and tax revenue that it gives us.

Over the next 1,000 years, all of the garbage in the entire United States could fit into one landfill that was 100 yards deep, on a piece of square land which was just 35 miles on each side. Today’s modern landfills are well sealed, and when they are full, they get turned into parks.

Petroleum

Our proven reserves of petroleum are getting smaller. Peak-oil is real.

However, because of nuclear power (see above), and plastic made from plants (see above), I don’t see this as being a problem.

In the 17th century, people might have worried that when the world ran out of candle wax, people would be unable to light their homes at night. But just as the light bulb was a better and safer replacement for the candle, in the future, we will use things which are better and safer than oil – and in fact, we already are.

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July 5, 2012. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Economics, Environmentalism, Overpopulation, Politics, Science, Technology.

9 Comments

  1. Phew... replied:

    Other than claiming peak oil this is real a decent article. We are nowhere near peak oil, in fact, we have more known oil reserves now than we did 50 years ago. Yes its not all light sweet crude, but its oil none the less. In fact if we NEVER found another drop of oil, we have well over 100 years worth of known reserves for the entire worlds use, of course this assumes technical improvements don’t reduce our need for the stuff over the next centruy.

    Lets not even discuss the fact old “empty” oil fields have been found to be refilling, bringing the entire theory that OIL is a product of crushed up old dinosaurs and finite into question. (most likely it is biological or chemical processes deep within the earth creating hydrocarbons as a byproduct, but we’ll not go into that now).

    • danfromsquirrelhill replied:

      Thanks. I am aware of the shale deposits which could be turned into hundreds of years of oil, but they are not classified as proven reserves.

  2. Phyllis Poole replied:

    I can’t understand why someone doesn’t drill water wells, build homes that are decent with bathrooms and septic tanks to make life better for the people in impoverished countries. They are being fed but the death rate is high because of unsanitary conditions they live. Why aren’t companies constructing propane tanks for their use of cooking. How about it Gates? and all the billioinairs, set up your companies over in those countries to help those people live better. Where is the farming help? There is a lot of money in this world and it needs to be put to better use than laying in a Swiss bank account and accuring more wealth that the oweners don’t need.

    • Michel Lamontagne replied:

      Hi Phyllis,

      Suppose you wanted to help 200 million people by building a proper well and septic tank system. And suppose you needed one well and one septic tank (and field) for every 4 people (2 adults, 2 children). Then you would need to drill 50 million wells and build 50 million tanks. A modern well, with a pump, a casing, a power source, proper water testing costs over 5000$ dollars. So that is 250 billions dollars just for the wells.
      Then the septic tanks, and the fields. A septic tank costs a few thousand dollars, and the field as well. So another 200 billion dollars. Plus you have to buy 50 million times the field area, about 250 ft square per tank. I know this is hard to believe but that works out to about 500 square miles of land, 20 miles x 25 miles. So the whole thing is worth half a trillion dollars, or about 10 times all of Bill Gates money. And no one would have a proper house yet.

      On the other hand, if we helped Africans build better industries, and bought their products, then 100 million adults could have better jobs. Even if they earned only 1000 dollars more than the absolute minimum required for living, they could have 2000 dollars a year per family to build a well, a septic tank and a house. After only 5 years of this, they would have the wells and the tanks, and then go on to build better roads, better schools and all the rest.

      For the US, that would means that every one of the 70 million households in the US would need to but about 1200$ in goods from Africa, furniture, food, or other material items. This is quite feasible, since it is exactly what is happening today in China. China is building at a tremendous rate because the US and other countries are buying Chinese products and that Chinese people can now afford to build better things for themselves.

      I hope this makes sense to you and that it answers your question. I think the best way to help another people is not to help them directly, it is to trade with them so they can help themselves.

      Best regards,

      Michel Lamontagne

  3. Michel Lamontagne replied:

    Hi Dan,

    You’re right on all counts, although perhaps I keep a small reserve on the impact of CO2. We’re improving access, so we’re increasing supply. However, I wonder if we can be certain that in the long term, the invention rate can keep up with the usage rate? And just how robust is this technological society? The quality of life pretty well depends on the amount of available energy, and although nuclear energy has an excellent record up till now, it is potentially very destructive. Finally, in a highly complex and technological society, can individuals maintain a reasonable level of freedom, or will we be more and more regulated, to prevent us from breaking the system? For example, if we depend entirely on desalination plants for our water, and therefore our survival, are we better off or less well off than if we depend on rain, than can be notoriously unreliable?

    Regards,
    Michel Lamontagne

  4. Ed Townsend replied:

    Dan,

    Thanks for the article. I was going to ask a little more about where you stand on nuclear. In addition, the ocean provides far more plant life than land. It leaved plenty to wonder where aquaculture may go, as algae makes for food and biofuel, and I am sure there’s more.

  5. jerry replied:

    good information
    In fact if we NEVER found another drop of oil, we have well over 100 years worth of known reserves for the entire worlds use, of course this assumes technical improvements don’t reduce our need for the stuff over the next centruy.

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