Running Out of Resources?

May 2, 2014

History is replete with ecologists' warnings about running out of resources, but humans have consistently broken through limits and found ways to innovate, writes Matt Ridley, author of "The Rational Optimist."

Concerns over resource depletion -- whether running out of oil or clean air or land -- have played a dominate role in our political discourse for decades. But while ecologists tend to think of the world as having static limits, economists see the world through a lens of innovation.

Ridley, who spent seven years as an academic studying ecology and then eight years working at The Economist magazine, says that his view of the world changed from a belief in capacity limits to one of unlimited growth. These divergent understandings explain much of the environmental policy debate today:

  • In the debate over global warming, pessimists see the atmosphere as having a limited capacity to cope with global warming. Continued carbon dioxide increases, therefore, will necessarily accelerate warming.
  • Optimists, on the other hand, believe that humans will find new technologies to keep carbon emissions down and prevent warming from reaching dangerous levels.
  • This distinction was clear in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's latest report, forecasting a temperature rise of 3.7 to 4.8 degrees Celsius by 2100. The prediction was based on assumptions that technology would change very little, that population growth rates would stop falling, that incomes would increase only threefold, and that the economy's energy efficiency would hardly improve. This is at odds with predictions by economists, who forecast a five to tenfold increase in income, massive technological changes and a stop in population growth.

The same phenomenon plays out in other areas, such as land productivity. Economists believe that the use of fertilizer, irrigation and pesticides will continue to improve crop yields. And according to Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University, the amount of land required to grow food has decreased by 65 percent over the last 50 years across the world.

Similar debates over water scarcity and natural gas have pitted ecologists against economists, with humans finding ways to break through projected barriers. Water demand by 2000 was half the amount predicted by scientists in the 1960s and 1970s. And thanks to fracking and shale exploration, we have natural gas in plentiful supply.

Source: Matt Ridley, "The World's Resources Aren't Running Out," Wall Street Journal, April 25, 2014.

 

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