February 19, 1996
Doomsday theorists still claim the "spaceship earth" is running out of natural resources -- including metals and minerals, energy supplies and food -- and the growing human population is using them up at an accelerating rate.
Yet usable resources are becoming more abundant, as indicated by their relative prices. Relative to wages, 1990 prices for all natural resources in the United States were only one-half what they were in 1950 and just one-fifth the 1900 price.
Mineral resources show a similar price decline: an index of 13 important metals and minerals show a net decline of 31 percent in real prices from 1980 to 1990.
Energy prices have also fallen:
- Oil prices have fallen 35 percent in constant dollars since 1980, and when indexed to U.S. wages have fallen more than 40 percent.
- Since 1980, the price of coal has dropped more than 90 percent when adjusted for inflation and more than 240 percent when indexed to U.S. wages.
Similarly, world food prices in real terms are falling as agricultural resources increase. One agronomist estimated that if the arable non-tropical land in the less developed nations of Africa, Asia and South America were farmed more efficiently:
- With yields less than one-half the present average per acre in the U.S. cornbelt, they could produce enough to feed a world population of 18 billion people.
- If the cultivable tropical land on those continents were included, they could support between 35 and 40 billion people.
And the supply of arable land is increasing, since biotechnology is creating plants that grow in dry climates or acid soils or can be irrigated with seawater.
No-growth advocates err in treating resources as finite materials, whereas innovation continuously makes new resources usable and extracts more services from them.
Source: Thomas Lambert, "Defusing the 'Population Bomb' With Free Markets," Policy Study No. 129. February 1996, Center for the Study of American Business, Washington University, Campus Box 1208, One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO 63130, (314) 935-5630.
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