Natural Resources

Great  Article

I came across this article that makes some great points that reinforce comments I have made in recent posts. I thought it was very well done. Since it didn’t have a copyright  notice I am taking the  liberty of republishing it here.

Natural Resources

Part 1: Doomsday or Utopia – The Record of the Past

A hundred and seventy years ago there was a major natural resources crisis. The oil that was used to light houses, factories and public buildings; the oil that was used for lubrication, making soap, varnishes and paint; the oil that was used for finishing leather and woolen products; that all purpose oil was getting more and more scarce and more and more expensive.

Also getting scarce and more expensive was the natural material people used then for many of the same uses we today have for plastics. With so many critically important natural resources running out, many experts predicted doom in the near future.

It didn’t happen that way.

The oil was whale oil, and the natural plastic material was whale bone.

Today in the final decades of the twentieth century many experts are predicting the same doom for the future as we seem to be running out of oil and gas, of minerals and soil-while our world population continues to soar. Let’s see what perspective we can gain on our natural resource problems today by looking at the history of natural resource problems in the past.

One of the first natural resource crises for life on earth happened two or three billion years ago. In the ancient primordial ocean the world’s first living organisms had been gobbling up the rich amino acid soup that had been made by lightning, volcanic action and other nonliving sources over many millions of years. When the soup began to get too thin to support such a large population of living organisms, many died from starvation. Some organisms, however, had developed an ability to use direct sunlight as a source of energy and they prospered. The world of plants was born. And with them many new possibilities for life on this small planet.

Passing through that crisis must have taken a long time. The living world, of course, passed through many other energy and raw material crises over the next three to four billion years. For our purposes let’s leap forward to the first human natural resource crisis.

It probably happened many places in the ancient world five to ten thousand years ago. At that time it is estimated that the population of human beings on the earth was on the order of one or two million. One or two million people scattered sparsely and unevenly over five continents and thousands of fertile islands. Much less than one person per square mile.

As always happens in natural ecosystems, there was a rough balance of resources to populations. Humans lived by hunting, fishing and by gathering wild foodstuffs. The average life expectancy was around twenty-five years, just long enough to reproduce and to nurture new human beings before they had to manage the same for their offspring. Since food and living space (in suitable caves and other natural shelters) were always scarce, populations were kept steady as the high birth rate was equal to the high death rate.

Then, no one knows for certain how or why, in certain parts of the world, humans learned how to make better use of natural resources. They learned how to multiply natural resources. They learned how to grow crops instead of just find and collect them. They learned how to herd and husband animals instead of just hunt them.

In the fertile crescent around the Mediterranean Sea, in the rich river valleys of China, Africa, South America and India, the agricultural revolution led to the first examples of human civilization, as we would come to call it in later years.

Note that the earth itself had not changed. There was still the same air, earth and water. Still the same elements as there had been millions, billions of years before. What had changed, though, were the natural resources available to human beings. Suddenly there was a substantial increase in resources like food, animal derived clothing and building materials. And new energy in the form of animal-harnessed muscle power.

Population increased dramatically, multiplying by ten and then a hundred times in just a few centuries. Life expectancy also increased to over thirty years. And though most people were peasants, laborers, serfs or even slaves, they did have a more secure and resource-rich life than their hunting-and-gathering ancestors.

When the sailing ship was invented to tap the energy of the wind for transportation, population and resources took another surge forward. Humans could now transport materials much more easily permitting one area to specialize in food production, another in metal smelting and a third in ship-building. And all could now trade, gaining what they had not, selling what they had too much of.

Still more important-and critical to our story humans could travel more and learn more, one from one another. The high civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, Southeast Asia, Africa, Greece and Rome were born.

In China especially, remarkable progress was made in technology and science. The wheelbarrow, the compass, the printing press, gunpowder, the first scientific instruments to measure earthquakes-were all invented centuries before they were discovered in the West.

In the West, in Middle Age Europe, increases in natural resources came from new technology. The supply of food and energy increased as people learned to make new kinds of wind and water machines, new methods of soil cultivation, crop rotation and better plows and horse collars. All these led to a gradual betterment of human life as continent Europe was slowly transformed from a primeval wilderness into a human-molded landscape.

Unfortunately, disease acted as a constant brake on human progress during these times. The population of Europe was cut by a third more than once by a plague called the Black Death. In spite of this, however, life expectancy did slowly increase. The population in Europe in 1500 was double the population in 600 when the Roman Empire was in its dying days.

Throughout these precarious days, as well as all the way back through ancient civilizations, certain ideas about wealth were widespread and deeply ingrained. One of the most influential of these ideas-and one that has lasted right on down to our own times-was that the most important, secure and real form of wealth was gold.

It was understandable. Change was slow. Society, indeed the universe itself, was looked on as a closed, static system. Everyone and everything had its place. If one person was to gain wealth, another must lose wealth. In later times this would be called a zero-sum economy.

In such an economy one would be wise to gather and hold onto the most solid kind of wealth. The kind that did not change and was easy to guard and preserve. Of all the natural resources, gold met those tests better than any other.

In the next three centuries the scientific and industrial revolutions burst upon the western world and changed forever this equation. Suddenly there was tremendous reshuffling and recreation of natural resources. And a new idea came into the world. The idea of an open society, an open universe. To get wealth you did not have to take it from someone else. You could make it from scratch! People began to have a new vision of progress!

Wealth need no longer be held by the tiny one percent of the population while the other ninety-nine percent were condemned to life-long poverty. It was no longer a zero-sum game. All could have enough. All could someday be as wealthy as the privileged few were today.

One particular resource in the ground, coal, and one particular resource of human invention, the steam engine, are given much of the credit for the early industrial revolution. Coal had been known from ancient times, but only sparingly used. With the invention of the steam engine, however, this black rock suddenly became a very valuable natural resource. And the way was open for a vast increase in human wealth.

After coal came the internal combustion engine and oil and gas as a power source. This was followed by electricity, nuclear energy, computers, much more efficient transportation and communication systems, all the technology that powers and supports our modem twentieth century world.

Just as important as the science and technology were new ideas about the economy and the political organization of society. Liberal democracy and free market capitalism in particular, were opening the eyes of people in Europe and North America to vast new potentials for change, for growth, for progress toward new wealth, power and knowledge.

And change there was. Since our own country was founded in 1776, the population of the world has leaped from three hundred million to close to five billion. Life expectancy has also increased from thirty-two to fifty-five years for the world as a whole. To seventy-four years for the industrialized western world.

The average worker in 1700 could produce $250 worth of goods a year. By 1984 the figure for the industrialized world had increased to $5000.

The average farm family in 1700 could feed itself and half a person more. The average farm family in 1984 could feed itself and fifty people more.

Put still another way, in our day every person in our country has the energy equivalent of over one hundred slaves at his or her command.

If the natural earth has not changed, where has all this new wealth come from?

Answer. From the human hand and mind. From learning how to do more with less.

For remember, the earth is still the same. Or is it?

Now we come to the disputes. Yesterday and today. Have we, in the process of industrializing and multiplying our wealth and populations, robbed the earth of her natural wealth? Are we laying the foundations for a terrible catastrophe in the future? One that our children and grandchildren will never forgive us for?

Have we of the wealthy nations gained our wealth by stealing it from the poor nations?

Experts disagree about these questions. And so do citizens.

Back in the last century, some of the first serious attempts were made to study the problems of natural resource depletion. Despite the statistically improving life spans and personal incomes, people could see the reality of urban poverty, of child labor, or increasing sanitation and pollution problems. Then, as now, there were pessimists and optimists.

The pessimists took much of their gloomy arguments from an English thinker, Thomas Malthus. Malthus (whose father ironically enough was a famous optimist) wrote an “Essay on Population” in 1798 that became very influential. His argument was simple and apparently irrefutable. Population, said Malthus, always had and always would tend to grow geometrically. While food supply (and all the other raw materials needed for human life) could only be expanded arithmetically. In other words, people multiply, while resources grow only by addition.

The result, said Malthus, was misery. The only ways food and population could be kept in balance were war, disease, and famine. Later he admitted that controlling births might also work, but he doubted this could ever be done.

Darwin later used the arguments of Malthus as key points in his own theory of evolution by natural selection.

In the middle of the nineteenth century men like Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs and John James Audubon tried to alert the public to the alarming speed at which wilderness was disappearing in this country. To the growing scarcity of species like the passenger pigeon, the buffalo, and mountain lion. Presidents like Theodore Roosevelt led conservation movements that established our first national parks and forests.

In this same nineteenth century, we also had the coming of the lumbermen and miners, the whaling ships and cowboys. All intent on exploiting for human gain the natural resources of a vast continent. On the whole these pioneers tended to be optimists. It was our Manifest Destiny to conquer and civilize the North American continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Wilderness was often seen as the enemy. It could never be depleted. The frontier was open, opportunities were unlimited, the way was clear for such progress that the kingdom of heaven itself would soon be founded on this glorious continent.

Both points of view have survived and developed since that last century. On the one hand we have expanded the frontier as the optimists predicted, though not quite in the way they imagined.

For instance:

Today, despite the rapid depletion of the original hardwood and pine forests, we produce more wood and forestry products than ever before by a large measure.

Today, despite the rapid depletion of early easy-to-find-and-mine iron, copper and coal resources, we produce more iron, copper and coal than ever before by a large measure. And at a lower cost in both money and human lives.

On the other side, we have also made much progress in conservation. Despite the growth of the lumber industry, for example, we have more forested land today in this country than we had a hundred years ago! Despite the depletion of the original hematite iron ranges, new technologies of taconite processing have given us more iron ore today than we had a hundred years ago! Over and over again we have learned to do more with less.

These paradoxes-the more we use, the more we have left-as well as our increasing ability to do more with less, have misled many experts in the past. As a result their predictive accuracy has not been impressive.

In 1908, for instance, the U.S. Bureau of Mines predicted a total future world supply of oil of 22.5 billion barrels. (The world has used one and a half times that much since 1908, and now has over 26 billion barrels in proven reserves!)

By 1939 officials were predicting the U.S. oil supplies could last only another thirteen years. By 1949 they saw the end of the oil supply in sight. And as recently as 1979 President Jimmy Carter declared the imminent oil shortage a national crisis of survival dimensions.

A similar story could be told of predictions of imminent food shortages and worldwide famine. In 1969 a prominent expert, Dr. Paul Ehrlich, wrote a best-selling book, The Population Bomb. In the first sentence he claims, “We have already lost the battle. No matter what crash programs are instigated at this time, they will not be enough to prevent a worldwide famine of catastrophic proportions in the next ten years. Billions of people will die.”

What actually happened? Now, twenty years later, there have been no worldwide famines. In fact, life expectancy is up all over the world. The food supply has more than kept pace with population growth even in the poorest countries. And all this has been accomplished without any crash programs. Just ordinary progress. Steady continuous application of human kind’s incredible ability to do more with less.

In 1972 a group called the Club of Rome sponsored two studies of natural resources for the future using computer simulations. Their conclusions were similar to those of past doomsday experts. The world has not much further to go before we run out of the basic raw materials we need to support our civilization.

In 1980 a U.S. government-appointed study group issued a report, Global 2000, that echoed much of the doomsday vision of the Club of Rome.

Three years later, however, another group of twenty-one experts reported to the annual convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science a totally opposite report, The Resourceful Earth: A Response to Global 2000.

These experts claimed that, contrary to the Club of Rome and to the popular belief in recent years, the world by the year 2000 will be less crowded, less polluted, have more food per capita and more natural resources per capita than ever before

Who is right? Global 2000 or The Resourceful Earth: A Response to Global 2000?

Part 2: Utopia or Doomsday – Present and Future

You have probably heard the statement made that the United States with six percent of the world’s population uses over forty percent of the world’s resources and generates over sixty percent of its wastes.

The question is-is this something to be ashamed of or proud of?

The answer you give depends a good deal on your understanding of just what a natural resource is. Let’s consider that question first.

On the surface it looks easy enough. Oil, gas, coal, soil, air, water; minerals, wildlife, wilderness. All these and more are indeed natural resources. Just as litter, trash, smoke, toxic wastes, radioactive particles are pollutants. If you look closer, however, it gets more complicated and interesting.

Geologically speaking, coal, oil, and gas are themselves the waste products of ancient plants and animals. And closer to our time, waste paper can be a natural resource for recycled paper; radioactive wastes can be a natural resource for breeder fuel; broken bottles and discarded plastics can be natural resources for new glass and new plastic.

Then, too, there is the matter of what we know or don’t know. Coal, oil, and gas have been in the ground for hundreds of millions of years, but only very recently have they been worth digging or pumping up. Rocks from the northern shore of Lake Superior were never considered a natural resource until someone figured out there was iron in them. Cantaloupe mold was considered a pollutant until someone figured out there was penicillin in there, and it could be used to cure infections.

In other words, being a natural resource has much to do with the state of human knowledge and ingenuity at any given time. What was an important resource yesterday (whale oil, for instance, or beaver fur) is no longer considered an important natural resource today. Not because there are fewer whales or beavers, but because the same human needs are now being met more cheaply, effectively, and efficiently by petroleum and nylon.

Let’s put it this way. There are three things necessary if we are to have a natural resource.

One. There must be a human need, a demand for a particular service or commodity.

Two. There must be a physical thing that can be found or made to satisfy that need.

Three. There must be available the human knowledge and skill to do the job–transforming the physical thing of matter and energy into the human thing of value.

Take an example. (1) Humans need and want energy and power. (2) There exists in the world physical things that have the potential to provide useful energy and power. (3) Humans have figured out some ways to tap some of these sources of energy and power for their own purposes.

Notice that I said some of these sources. By no means all, nor even necessarily any high percentage of these sources. We do know of some ways to get energy from nature. Oil, gas, coal, water flowing, wind blowing, sunlight shining, atoms splitting, tides moving, rocks underground heating. Most of these ways were totally unknown two hundred years ago. Many were not known twenty years ago.

And what will we know twenty years from now? A hundred years from now? It would be a rash person to claim to know.

Consider some possibilities already on the way. Fusion power, vast untapped solar power, nuclear breeder power, vastly improved efficiencies in all our machines, power from fuels in outer space–we know not how many possible other sources, totally unsuspected at the moment.

In other words, it is highly unlikely, if the past is any judge at all, that we will ever “run out” of energy resources. Our ingenuity has already created far more choices than we can use efficiently.

So, too, with raw materials. Beaver fur is replaced by nylon. Whale bone is replaced by plastic. Copper wires are replaced by glass fibers and satellite disks.

When you consider how young we are as human beings on this earth, we have barely begun our search.

The search is the key. In the end it is not physical things that limit us. In truth the only real natural resources we need to worry about is the ultimate resource–the human hand and mind.

When we put our minds and hands to it, look what we can create.

The natural resource of hard rock is transformed into a transistor, a silicon chip, a sculpture.

The natural resources of soft wood is transformed into a pencil, a table, a book.

The natural resource of air and water is turned into fertilizer, into corn, into a gourmet meal.

People who say we are fast running out of natural resources; people who say the United States should be ashamed of itself for squandering such a large proportion of the world’s resources; people who say we are heading for a doomsday reckoning might reply…

“While all you say may have been true in the past, the situation is drastically changed today. Despite efficiency and the power of the mind and all that–the world, you see, is finite. There is only so much air, soil, and water; only so much oil, gas, and iron, and copper to go around. If we use more than our share at this late date in human history, the rest of the world, and our own children will be the poorer for it. Especially considering the way the population of the world is exploding!”

As the presidential commission Global 2000 reported in 1980, “if present trends continue, the world in 200 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now.”

Three years later, however, another group of scientists published The Resourceful Earth: A Response to Global 2000. They came to the exact opposite conclusion. “If present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be less crowded, less polluted, more stable ecologically, and less vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in.”

How could two groups of professional scientists come to such diametrically opposed conclusions?

Here is one possible answer. If you look on natural resources as simply and only physical oil in the ground, physical square miles of soil and oceans of water and air. If you view wealth as the gold buried in Fort Knox, then yes, the world is finite. More people will indeed need and use more. and what we use someone else must do without. And the more we use the more wastes we will create, and thus the world will end up more polluted, more disrupted, and less stable.

However, once you add the human mind to the equation, it changes radically. In this view, a natural resource is only a resource if human needs and ingenuity make it so. And since by far the most important part of any natural resource is this human ingenuity and skill, we have learned in the past and we can learn in the future to multiply resources faster than we multiply people.

The same soil, for instance, that once supported three people now supports three hundred. How? Because we have learned how to breed better seeds, add better fertilizer, cultivate more efficiently, and distribute the food more efficiently and equitably.

The same copper that once carried ten telephone messages now carries ten thousand because we learned how to multiply electromagnetic carriers, to pack more information into smaller spaces. And tomorrow we can send ten million messages using no copper at all, just glass fibers and satellites in space.

Let’s look at the record, say the Response to Global 2000 scientists. Population has grown by leaps and bounds in the past century, it is true. But food supply has grown even faster. Yes, even in the poor countries of the world, most of whom are now self-sufficient and even exporting food.

The same goes for life expectancy, infant mortality, health, communication, education. Much of the world is still below the standards of North America, Europe and Japan, but, despite the gloomy reports, there is and has been consistent progress over the past decades. If natural resources were fixed and limited, where did all this new growth, this new wealth, come from?

The United States with only six percent of the world’s population, has not been stealing more than its share. It has been creating more than its share!

Thankfully the rest of the world is catching on, and beginning to create more wealth for itself. For wealth is not gold. It is knowledge. Knowledge that brings power and delight.

This being so, despite temporary setbacks, there is no reason to think the process of creating wealth will not continue. Population will level off as it always has in past revolutions. We will attain a new equilibrium more desirable than any in the past.

In other words, resources are not finite after all. The future, in this view, is open, unlimited, is full wish risk, challenge and potential. Because the human mind if open, is unlimited, is full with risk, challenge, and potential.

But wait, you say! Not so fast. What about pollution? What about acid rain, the greenhouse effect? What about over-population, species extinction? There have to be limits somewhere. The world is not a commodity to be processed by man alone. It is a community to which we belong as one and only one member. We must pay heed. We must strive for quality as much as for quantity. As Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “I hear they are planning to build a telegraph from Maine to Texas, but I wonder whether anyone has inquired whether Maine and Texas have anything important to say to one another.”

To which all intelligent people must respond, yes. We must pay heed. That is what being human is all about.

True, we must begin to look on ourselves as a partner in nature, not as a tyrant. True, we must consider quality as well as quantity. The quality of what we say and think and do is ever so much more important than how fast or how many things we do and say.

And there is slowly growing a new consensus among the world’s peoples. It needs nurturing the way any new crop does. But it is gaining strength all the time and will continue to do so.

This new consensus says things like:

Pollution can and will be controlled. Even more, pollution can and will be turned to the good of the whole living planet. One example: in north-central Illinois they are right now using waste sludge from Chicago’s sewage system to rehabilitate strip-mined land, turning it back into productive corn fields and orchards.

Species can and will be protected. Including all varieties of our own species, Homo sapiens.

Example: in Wisconsin, Siberian cranes and whooping cranes are being raised in captivity to help increase the population in the wild and to understand how to save the natural habitat of wild cranes. We are also learning how to preserve and expand natural wilderness areas. Even how to bring back to a natural state areas formerly polluted.

But the new consensus also demands that while we are preserving and enhancing our natural environment, at the same time we increase our worldwide ability to create new wealth so that…

100% of the world’s people eat well every day.

100% of the world’s people have good housing.

100% of the world’s people have good health care.

100% of the world’s people have the freedom to make choices, the freedom to search, the freedom to learn, the freedom to create wealth themselves and in the process to create a better life for themselves and for their children and their children’s children.

Which is, after all, what natural resources are all about. We had better get busy. Doomsday has been cancelled. Utopia is irrelevant. the future if what we make it.

Article taken from

Published by Bill Stonebarger

Unfortunately, this site is no longer available

June 26, 2004

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