I took heat yesterday for suggesting that the resources needed for the production of goods are not really finite in any practical sense. It was a ham-handed suggestion because, of course, all things are finite. If we could drink the oceans, for example, the oceans would cease to exist.
What I really had in mind is that the argument from scarcity is wrongheaded. Just because we can imagine a Noah’s Flood doesn’t mean that one is imminent or certain.
More generally, it should be obvious that our planet and all the resources it contains are finite, but it should be just as obvious that resources exist off our planet. Presumably, we will become able to go to them and bring them back, refurbishing whatever meager supply our planet all alone once provided.
The essay provides a more terrestrial assessment of resource supply.
The Malthusian fallacy is a dreadful belief that human beings are net consumers of resources. Yet the productivity and ingenuity of humanity is presumably noticeable to those who do not hunt and gather their food barehanded. In 1974, two years after The Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth, an apocalyptic treatise warning of overpopulation and environmental calamity (linked above, see “tizzy”), the global population reached 4 billion people. Thirteen years later, in 1987: 5 billion people. Twelve years later, in 1999: 6 billion. Twelve more years passed and as of 2011 the global population stood at 7 billion individuals.
At no point during this near-doubling of most important number on earth did the sky catch fire. Life got better. And resources became less scarce! Julian Simon handily won his bet that copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten would be cheaper in 1990 than they had been in 1980, even though he let his pessimistic counterpart choose those five commodities. Resources held as private property are, as a rule, diligently stewarded. Historically, resources have been abandoned on a global scale in favor of superior substitutes, not because they have been depleted.
After popularizing kerosene for heat and illumination, oilman John D. Rockefeller pioneered the commercial use of a substance that was previously discarded as industrial waste: gasoline. Rockefeller, a frugal man who lived quite modestly and reputedly hated waste with a white hot passion, figured out a way to turn trash into treasure.
The point to grasp is that resources are not only consumed, they are also produced. Because of this, it is conceivable for an economy to “grow” infinitely.