More than 200 years ago, Malthus argued that the world was going to run out of resources, because population inevitably increased faster than our ability to provide for it. The argument has been disproved time and again, but its adherents remain convinced that it must be true sooner or later. It doesn’t seem to matter how often the arguments are shot down in flames – there is always someone ready to pick up the standard. This week’s New Scientist has four pages praising The Limits to Growth, the book that argued that come what may, we were going to run out of the things we need. Part of the problem is the flakiness of the predictions – the birth rate has not followed the projected path, and nor will most of the consequent projections.
The NS article comments that economists claimed that “Limits underestimated the power of the technological fixes humans would surely invent.” If you can’t counter an argument, misrepresent it. The basic objection from economists is not that new technologies will inevitably appear – even if they might. The point is that many alternative technologies already exist, and costs are relative. If a resource becomes scarce, it will cost more, and other technologies which are initially too expensive become preferable.
The fundamental economic mechanism is one which pushes people to use substitutes. As coal has become more expensive, options for producing energy which once seemed unrealistic – nuclear power, bio-fuels – start to be feasible. As wood has become more expensive, plastics have expanded. If food production through conventional methods becomes unsustainable, there is a range of viable technologies, such as hydroponics, which stand in readiness. There is, certainly, an incentive to develop new technologies, such as electric cars, water purifiers or solar power, and many will be developed, but that is not the central mechanism. We will never use the last piece of coal, the last drop of oil, or the last lump of copper; long before then, it will cost too much. The argument that we are about to run out of resources is just plain wrong.