When cavemen roamed the Earth, it seemed like a world of endless bounty, but now that seven billion people crowd the planet, the limits of its abundance are becoming painfully apparent.
First, the good news—it is mathematically impossible for humans to ever deplete the world’s resources. From oil and gold to drinking water, fish and grain, the Earth’s resources will always exceed what people can consume.
The reason that’s true is the bad news. According to renowned American geologist Earl Cook (1920-1983), as resources become more scarce they become more expensive to obtain. Eventually the economics of resource exploitation cause the collapse of consumption before the last grain, drop or morsel can be accessed.
In fact, resources eventually become so expensive that only the wealthiest can afford them, hence demand and consumption naturally decline.
Typically, we rely on advances in technology to substitute something cheaper and more abundant for resources that become too dear to obtain.
That’s why many believe solar power will eventually replace coal as an energy source, and synthetic proteins may someday be our primary source of food.
But there is a much bleaker scenario. If technological progress is not rapid enough, human populations will stop growing and begin dying off, long before resource depletion occurs.
Oil and gold prices have increased dramatically and continue to climb. The costs of fresh water and food are now prohibitive in many impoverished parts of the world. The rich may get richer, but the poor will continue to grow in number until they can no longer afford to live.
The undeniable fact is that unlimited growth requires unlimited resources.
Because the Earth’s air, water, minerals and other resources are finite, its human population must be, too. And there are only two ways in which to stabilize growth—voluntarily through planning or naturally via mass famine, epidemics and armed conflict.
Avoidance of an apocalyptic conclusion requires sustainable development, including global programs of population control and sensible use of natural resources.
Proposals for such have been put forth since 1976 through the Natural Resources Forum of the United Nations, but what countries are heeding the call? And can action be taken quickly enough?
The economics of resource usage will provide the answer, one way or the other.
Alfablue, January 2013