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Sustainable Society:  A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.







MFS: The Julian Simon Perspective & Responses
Brian Carnell
Three Responses


Are Resources Infinite?

Brian Carnell*
May 18, 2000


       Economist Julian Simonís claim that all natural resources are infinite has provoked a lot of discussion and debate, often by people on both sides who miss the fundamental insight Simon had about resource availability.

       Simonís point is not that at any given moment there are an infinite number of gold or copper atoms in the Earth. Clearly the mass of the Earth is finite, and current cosmological theories imply the mass of the universe is finite as well.

       Instead resources are infinite in the sense that human beings will never run out of them for whatever purpose they decide to use them for. This directly contradicts the conventional environmental wisdom which claims the more of a resource removed from the Earth, the more scarce that resource becomes.

       Simon uses copper as an example of why resources are infinite. Copper has been used for thousands of years for a variety of uses. The amount of copper taken from mines has increased over the last few millennia, yet copper-based products are actually cheaper today than at any other time in history. If it were true that the more a natural resource used the more scarce it becomes, this is a puzzle.

       Simon points out, however, that as the price of copper increases due to scarcity human beings find new sources of copper, find ways to recycle existing copper stocks and develop alternatives to copper.

       The insight Simon has here is that people donít buy resources. Instead they buy services. People, for example, donít buy large lumps of iron; they buy cars which perform a service quick and efficient transportation. People donít buy thousands of miles of copper wire; they buy access to telephone systems that allow quick communications.

       People donít care if you replace the iron with less expensive hybrid materials, or if the thousands of miles of copper wire are replaced by a satellite orbiting the Earth that doesnít require any copper at all, as long as the service is comparable.

       The error critics make is assuming this means Simon requires new technological discoveries constantly. In fact Simonís point is that the conventional wisdom assumes humanity is always locked into a single solution for a given problem. In fact such solutions are but one of a number of alternatives which can be selected.

       The technology to route telephone calls through materials other than copper wire was available long before it began to be utilized on a large scale. Alternative solutions are usually only implemented when the original either becomes too expensive or when the problem changes in such a way that current solutions canít keep up (both happened with communications).

       Our options are therefore not between current solutions and some possible future invention but between a range of present alternatives. This helps explain why after 300 years of predictions of imminent severe shortage of natural resources, in fact the supply of natural resource has continually increased.

Three Responses

June 28, 2003

RE: Are Resources Infinite? No, but resources aren't really the issue, but rather valuing human life.

No resources aren't "infinite," but are limited, a valid question for society to consider as the Earth isn't getting any bigger, so population growth in some ways forces us to live in denser and denser human populations.

But God has given us all the resources we need, I think there is much validity in technical optimism, even though it should not be looked upon as some sort of false god or magic cure-all.

It is conceivable that the world could someday, eventually grow very "crowded" with people, and yet there be plenty of resources for all, as technologies are improved by humans.

I think in many ways, survival isn't really the question, as human lifespan has increased, and so has wealth. "Overpopulation" is more of a "social" question of just how close do we want to live to our neighbors?

Of course the very idea of "overpopulation" is flawed from the start, as it assumes that "those other people's" lives aren't important, while our own life is highly valuable. Since "those other people" over yonder wherever are much like us, couldn't they view us the same way? That is logically inconsistent. If I like living, then the 6 billion+ people on the planet probably feel similarly about the matter. Since I want to live and have children, then I should welcome others to also, and accept that human population growth is normal and to be welcomed. As I do, as people generally are not some detriment, but help others out in many ways. Thus adding even more people to the world, should not be viewed a "problem," but a positive thing to be encouraged.

If people really loved thy neighbor(s) as thyself, then for thy neighbor to be numerous, or possibly live close by, should not be a problem. So,

"The more the merrier."

I think Julian Simon is a wee bit of an idiot if he really claims that human population can go on forever on a finite planet. But the extreme scenario is hardly relevant to anything. Human population growth can in fact go on, at least far out into the *forseeable future*. The earth is far from "full" of people, and if the earth perhaps could hold some 200 billion people if need be, or even more, why worry if human population rushes pellmell to 30 billion? It would only be helping solve the *underpopulation* problem and make better use of the resources and space on earth.

While I like the idea of humans colonizing other planets, and having more room to grow our numbers, I don't think it practical with current technology, nor likely as I don't see it in the Bible. So the most reasonable answer to the population concern is for the burgeoning billions to grow denser and denser. Urbanize the world to whatever extent needed.

With cities only occupying but 2 or 3% of the land, there is ample room that growing human populations can spread into. Sprawl is a very reasonable approach to promote, if it is driven by population growth. Let cities and towns grow larger and more numerous, and closer together. Let growing cities coelesce, and let people live most anywhere they want. And that is only but one dimension. Human populations can also grow into 2 other perceptional dimensions. We can infill our cities and live closer to our neighbors or develop unused land within cities. And we can also grow upwards, stacking more people into skyscrapers and highrises.

Rick Lootin
June 28, 2003

"True, if you are talking about atoms. Of course they don't disappear after using them in some machine/gizmo.

The problem is of course the ENERGY needed to recycle resources.

Example: Chemically speaking, after burning a load of oil by oxidation, thus gaining energy from the carbonhydrates, you end up with the same atoms. Only now they are in the 'useless' form of water and CO2.

How is Julian going to recycle water and CO2 to oil?

It is all about energy." Yes, entropy always increases and the universe will probably fall apart, but one can use the hydrogen in the water for fusion and fuel cells.

Erwin Moller
 June 11, 2003

Economists are not well known for their knowledge of serious sciences, so why do we let them run our world? :-/
Regards, Erwin.

MFS: Click here to return to Paul Ehrlich, Sustainability Author.
* Courtesy of Brian Carnell.
See original at < http://www.overpopulation.com/faq/Natural_Resources/resources_infinite.html >.


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